Avoiding campaign ads during the 2016 election has been futile. Even if you turn off your TV, political ads pile up in a place you can’t ignore: your mailbox.
But there are some surprising findings in all that political mail. The fliers are more substantive than we expected and at least some of them have more positive claims about candidates than attacks on opponents.
Along with student researcher Hank Tucker, I analyzed 40 pieces of political mail that were sent to Bill Adair, director of the Reporters’ Lab and a Durham resident, beginning in late August. Of these mailers, 11 related to the presidential campaign; 20 to the U.S. Senate seat held by Richard Burr; and five to the gubernatorial race. One involved the North Carolina State Treasurer race, and three applied to multiple races.
We started with a hypothesis: Despite the elaborate graphics and eye-catching text, these pieces of mail wouldn’t actually say much about the candidates, their platforms or their political experience.
That wasn’t the case. Although several fliers did grab readers’ attention with ominous sentences — a Senate race mailing said, “‘My mom taught me to respect myself, to work twice as hard and to stand up to men like Richard Burr’” — a majority of the mail did integrate candidates’ policies, positions and voting histories. Only eight did not.
That same attack on Burr goes on to cite his votes against equal pay, against extending the Violence Against Women Act and against funding to reduce North Carolina’s rape kit backlog.
Another piece of mail accuses Deborah Ross of opposing the creation of North Carolina’s sex offender registry. The mailing reads, “As a radical political activist working for North Carolina’s ACLU, Deborah Ross opposed the bipartisan plan… Her concern? It could make it hard for dangerous predators ‘to reintegrate into society… and could lead to vigilantism.’”
Not every ad was negative. Of the 40 mailers we examined, 16 portrayed candidates in a positive light, while also touting their views on particular issues. For example, a postcard from the For Our Future PAC says that Hillary Clinton will “fight for climate change policy and has a plan to make equal pay for equal work a reality, invest in pre-K and make college affordable for all.” Another pro-Clinton mailing, paid for by the Democratic Party of North Carolina, shares details of her plans for the economy, international relations and paid family leave.
It’s worth noting that some pieces of mail weren’t specific in their description of a candidate’s policy plans. A door hanger from Donald Trump’s campaign managed to lay out his plans for the country without ever explaining how he’ll accomplish his goals. Using phrases like “America first,” “ending political corruption” and “safer, stronger America,” it fails to detail how Trump would make the country more secure or prevent politicians from lining their own pockets.
Also, some big and important issues were missing from the mailings, including Social Security, the federal budget and Medicare. Only one of the ads we looked at — which came from the nonpartisan Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund — mentioned Medicare, citing Burr’s support and Ross’ opposition of privatizing the system. Social Security wasn’t mentioned on any of the 40 mailings, nor was the federal budget — although one pro-Clinton ad claimed that “Trump’s tax plan would add trillions to the national debt.”
Many of the fliers were reruns that cycled through the same talking points (Deborah Ross raised taxes by $3 billion! Richard Burr voted to defund Planned Parenthood!).
Though many Americans are likely throwing these mailings directly in the trash, they offer something that TV and radio advertisements cannot: a slightly more substantive look at a candidate’s experience and values. Whereas televised campaign ads only have 30 seconds to get their points across — and viewers are often distracted by any number of variables — a tangible piece of mail allows voters to sit down and absorb the information.
Still, voters should be wary. We didn’t fact-check all the claims, but students in Bill’s newswriting and reporting class checked a sampling of the claims and rated them using PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter. The average rating: Half True.
For the last three months, student researchers in the Reporters’ Lab have watched hundreds of campaign commercials as part of our Duke Ad Watch project.
The goal was to save time for fact-checkers. The students watched ads for the presidential, senatorial, congressional and gubernatorial races and identified claims journalists at PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and other organizations could check.
Students also wrote blog posts throughout the semester, analyzing different trends that cropped up again and again in campaign ads.
With Election Day fast approaching, Bill Adair, the director of the Reporters’ Lab, sat down with the Duke Ad Watch team to discuss what it’s been like to watch hundreds of campaign ads.
He spoke with student researchers Hank Tucker, Amanda Lewellyn, Julia Donheiser, Asa Royal and Sam Turken, along with project manager Rebecca Iannucci. Here is an edited transcript.
Bill: When you tell people, “My job is to watch campaign ads all day,” and they say, “Wow, what’s that like?” — what’s your response?
Asa: It’s fun! Some of the ads are well-made, some are corny and some are horribly misleading, but almost all of them are worth watching. Eventually, you can predict what you’ll see in an ad just by seeing who’s made it and who’s mentioned in it.
Rebecca: For me, it’s two things. On one hand, it’s actually helped me to be more informed, because I’ve found myself researching whether or not the claims in these ads are true or false. I feel like I’ll be walking into that voting booth on Nov. 8 with a pretty clear picture of who these candidates really are. But it also makes me sad to watch so many attack ads. I know there are so many people being influenced by these ads, for better or for worse, and they’re blindly believing false claims. And just watching these politicians attack each other for months, instead of focusing on why they’re good for the job or what difference they would make in office — it can be really disheartening.
Julia: It makes you a little crazy and very frustrated. I say crazy because campaign ads are the epitome of low production value. But the frustration comes from the claims that campaigns and PACs continuously make, and the way that candidates and their opponents are characterized in the process. The people making these ads are only concerned about whether their candidate — and quite frankly, their party — wins. It leads to a “gotcha” style of attack ads.
Bill: So, you’re seeing the same candidates using the same ads. But are you seeing the same candidates using the same lines?
Amanda: A lot of candidates use the same B-roll. You’ll see a kind of mix-and-match between advertising. They’ll use [Republican Chuck] Grassley [of Iowa] shaking hands with people outside of a small business in different ads. And Americans for Prosperity and J Street put together multiple ads [in different states] that were pretty much the same, just with a different candidate in the hole.
Rebecca: Yeah. They were identical. I haven’t seen a lot of candidates across different states saying the exact same lines, as if they were reading from a script that was just given to a bunch of different states.
Rebecca: I’ve just seen the same type of factual claims get said. But from state to state, I don’t see identical scripts being used.
Sam: Also, they all respond to each other now. Or at least, a lot of them do. There was one [series of ads] where you had this bicycle delivery guy. I forget who that was for, but then the opponent introduced another bicycle delivery guy in their ads saying, “That first guy’s wrong.”
Amanda: Katie McGinty.
Rebecca:Shady Katie McGinty! [Laughs]
Hank: And Ted Strickland’s response to [Rob] Portman [of Ohio]: “He criticized me for draining the Rainy Day Fund, but it was raining pretty hard!”
Rebecca: He admitted that!
Asa: I think that ads have gotten repetitive, but that’s probably what candidates want. If a message gets played once, people will forget it. If it’s played twice, attentive people will remember it. If it’s played 40 times, nobody is going to forget it.
Bill: Does seeing all these ads make you more cynical about politics?
Hank: [immediately] Yeah.
Hank: You’ve heard “race to the bottom” a lot in the presidential campaign, but I think that’s what all the campaigns this year are getting to be. I don’t think there’s any ad that is all positive about their candidate. They can be half-negative, and then they pivot to the positive. Or a lot of them are just all negative. But there’s always an attack. It’s not like they’re running on their positions and their values. They’re saying, “This person screwed everything up, so you should vote for me.”
Julia: It’s hard not to think that politicians treat campaigns and policy like a game when you’re constantly seeing them attack their opponents with falsehoods. The political climate is so bad right now that most of these political ads seem like they could be from a comedy show. And the voters that these ads are meant to target aren’t always going to go to PolitiFact or Factcheck.org. The campaigns know that, and they take advantage of it.
Rebecca: I have found I’m also very cynical about what on Earth gets done in Washington, after seeing all these different races. If you focus on [Democratic Senate candidate] Catherine Cortez Masto, she tried to tackle sex trafficking in Nevada. But then you look at the Senate race in another state, where a different candidate talks about sex trafficking, and they couldn’t get anything done, even if Catherine Cortez Masto made a little bit of progress. You look at how many people are running for so many different offices, and you think, “What’s the point of any of this?” They go into Washington and they’re up against such partisanship, they’re just pushing their own agenda — what on Earth is actually getting accomplished there? Despite how important my one vote is said to be, that’s not always how I feel. I feel like no matter what we do, nothing is going to get achieved, because of watching all these ads and seeing how everyone is so conflicted in what they want.
Bill: What’s the production quality of these ads? Are they good? [to Rebecca] Now, you’re the former TV writer. Do you feel like they’re well-produced?
Rebecca: [Laughs] No. I don’t feel that way.
Sam: Some of the graphics are kind of cool.
Rebecca: Some of the graphics are interesting. Those are very creatively done sometimes. The ones that make me cringe are the ones where the candidates themselves show up, and they do some cheesy little skit with their constituents, or with a friend, or their husband or wife. There was one recently with [Sen.] Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, and he used his grown daughters and his wife. The women say to each other, “We didn’t want him to run for another term, but now we’re glad he’s doing it. You need help in there, honey?” And Ron Johnson is changing his grandson’s diaper in another room, and the grandson pees in his face. Then at the end, he comes in with the baby, and he dunks the diaper in the trash can, and they’re like, “Nice shot, Dad!” It’s so painful to watch. Those are the moments when production value is bad; it’s so cheesy. Why on Earth would you try to be relatable in this way when it makes you look very awkward?
Sam: She’s like, “Oh, I smacked bills out of the park just like balls.”
Hank: Total pandering.
Amanda: With her Sox cap on.
Julia: The only ads I’ve seen with good production value either come straight from the campaign or are really, really weird.
Asa: As far as bad production value, I’d focus on a big bulk of ads that I just call “exceedingly mediocre.” Joe the Plumber/Doctor/Construction Worker appears on the screen, talks down on one candidate’s record, talks up another candidate’s record and then concludes the ad with a tagline. The only thing that can make an ad like that worse is if Joe never appears and you’re just forced to listen to a monotone narrator for the whole ad.
Amanda: Then there’s an ad for [Iowa Senate candidate] Patty Judge where you can tell it’s important, because she’s got the guy who voices Prairie Home Companion [Garrison Keillor] in there, and they’re challenging [Grassley] to a debate. But it’s such terrible quality. It’s tilted. It’s just an iPhone video. And you compare that to Trump or Clinton, who are never going to release something along those lines.
Bill: How are the presidential ads different? It used to be that campaigns would put out dozens and dozens of individual ads, and I don’t feel like we’ve seen that many different ads from the Trump and Clinton campaigns, have we?
Hank: There aren’t that many Hillary ads, but she knows which ones are working. We’ve seen [Trump] attacking the veterans, and one of Hillary’s ads shows veterans watching what Trump says about them. It’s also easier that they’re running against a very unusual candidate who might not be as sophisticated as a lot of presidential candidates. You can just keep doing the same things. He’s said a lot of stuff. It’s working.
Bill: What’s the best Trump ad?
Amanda: They just throw out words: “Power.” “America, great again.” That’s it.
Sam: There’s no policy. No policy.
Rebecca: The only ones that did have policy were the series of ads called “Two Americas.” One was about immigration, one was economy, one was veterans. And they all say, “In Hillary Clinton’s America, it’s more of the same… but worse.” [Bill laughs] “But in Donald Trump’s America…,” and it gets happy. But there’s no specific numbers. It doesn’t really say how he will go about doing anything. They’ll just say, “Everyone gets more affordable child care. Everyone gets more this or that.” And that’s it.
Bill: What’s the best ad?
Amanda: I got teary-eyed at one the other day. I don’t even remember what it was — [to Rebecca] — but I remember I told you about it.
Rebecca: The bully one. From Clinton.
Amanda: The bully one! She mixes in clips of Trump speaking and bullying people with bullies from movies. The guy from Back to the Future…
Rebecca:A Christmas Story, Regina George from Mean Girls…
Amanda: And then it flips to a young girl asking Clinton what she’s going to do about bullies in America. And then Clinton has a heartwarming response. It’s really cute.
Rebecca: I would say the series of ads that Clinton put out — like you were saying, Hank — with the kids watching the TVs, veterans watching the TVs. There was one specific ad where they actually interviewed one of those veterans and did a full minute-long ad with just him. He talked about how the horrors of war still stick with him, and he started crying and saying, “How dare Donald Trump say that he can relate to this.” I found all of those really emotionally stirring. It’s one thing to see the clips of Trump over and over, being such a jerk and saying all these things, but to see those people react and be so sad and scared — that’s what really gets me. And the “Mirrors” ad that Clinton put out, too. That was probably the most effective.
Sam: Yeah, the Hillary ads that just have Trump clips. It’s so easy to do, so easy to put together, and the message is just so clear. You really don’t need anything more complicated than that. It just reinforced everything, all the negative things he’s said.
Bill: What’s the worst ad? I’d be particularly interested at the state level — worst for production value, most annoying. What’s the worst one?
Rebecca: Oh my gosh. I have to think about this. I’ve seen so many bad ones.
Sam: That comic one with Hillary.
Bill: What was that one?
Sam: It was this weird comic thing. She was a cartoon. Everybody was a cartoon. Talking about Russia.
Rebecca: She went to go visit Putin and handed over uranium, and the whole thing was voiced by impersonators of Putin and Clinton. It was so weird! It was so weird.
Asa: I wish this weren’t so easy. Donald Trump’s attempt to appeal to the BJP Hindu vote in America. If the ad was supposed to make me cringe and laugh, I guess it worked. If it was supposed to appeal to my half-Indian identity and make me think better of Trump, I don’t know what to say.
Hank: There was one that was just goofy. [Christine Jones] was running for Congress, a Republican businesswoman. There was a white background where she was standing, and there was a crowd of old white guys around a microphone, and she says things like, “I’ve never taken funding from special interests. Can they say that?” and they all start chanting, “More, more, more!” Just weird.
Rebecca: That’s the vibe I got from so many of these cringey, I’m-embarrassed-for-you kind of ads. You laugh at them, and then you remember: These are people running for office. They are running to be in the Senate. They’re running to be in Congress. And — [laughs] — it’s just so stupid!
Amanda: It makes you take the race less seriously, and the position itself.
Hank: There’s another ad that weirded me out. It implied that parents of young children would be dying. [Everyone groans and laughs, recognizing the ad] It showed this picture of a mom in her bed with her young daughter, and then the mom vanishes. Fades into nothing. And then there’s a dad with his daughter, who’s wearing a wedding dress. And they’re standing together, but then the dad vanishes and it’s just the daughter alone. And then there’s a dad with his kid on a tricycle… but then the kid vanishes.
Rebecca: You think the dad’s gonna vanish, but then the kid has died!
Hank: And then it says something like, “Pollution creates so many premature deaths every year. Senator Ron Johnson voted against the clean energy something-or-other. Don’t vote for him.”
Bill: So if he gets re-elected, people are going to die.
Rebecca: Yep. That little 5-year-old.
Hank: A lot of times, you can tell who’s losing.
Sam: Yeah, who’s desperate.
Bill: How so?
Hank: They seem more desperate. It seems like they feel more of a need to defend themselves against attacks from the other candidate. Like in Ohio, Ted Strickland is losing to Rob Portman, and you can tell that [Strickland’s team] is kind of on their heels, having to defend themselves and make these extreme, radical claims against whoever. Same with [Russ] Feingold — he’s beating Ron Johnson in Wisconsin. And Feingold, a lot of his ads are more traditional, saying, “I did these things in the Senate.” The losers don’t seem as on-message. They’re just all over the place, ads trying to attack everything. The desperation — it’s not obvious in all the cases, but you can tell.
Sam: Yeah, like Michael Bennet in Colorado. He’s had an easy lead in Colorado.
Rebecca: Who’s he running against? [beat] Oh, Darryl Glenn.
Amanda: Darryl Glenn!
Rebecca:That’s the worst ad we’ve ever seen!
Sam: Is that the one with him working out?
Rebecca: Yes! He’s doing, like, P90X for three minutes!
Sam: Michael Bennet hasn’t attacked once. I’ve seen 10 ads for Michael Bennet, and not one of them has an attack in it.
Rebecca: Yeah, he has run a very positive race.
Amanda: Until Darryl Glenn released that ad, I don’t think we even knew who [Bennet’s] competition was.
Rebecca: We didn’t, yeah! We were like, “Is he running uncontested?” Because nothing bad was coming out about him, and he’s not saying anything bad about other people.
Hillary Clinton is getting support in her attack advertising from an unusual source: Republicans.
Widely respected and ordinary Republicans alike are crossing party lines to attack Trump, with several Clinton ads featuring prominent GOP politicians denouncing their nominee. Most of the conservative attacks against Trump are not on specific policy issues, but instead on a lack of trust in a potential Trump presidency with access to the nuclear codes.
Hillary for America’s “Confessions of a Republican” ad, which first aired in June, echoes an ad by the same name supporting Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson during the 1964 campaign. Clinton’s simple commercial shows William Bogert — an old Republican actor — in black and white, sitting in a chair and talking straight to the viewer, just like a younger Bogert did 52 years ago.
Bogert, who is never named in the ad, claims to come from a family of Republicans, but attempts to distinguish Trump from Republican presidential nominees of years past.
“Donald Trump — he’s a different kind of man,” Bogert says. “This man scares me.”
Bogert raises his voice when he says Trump wants to be “unpredictable” with nuclear weapons, calling the nominee a “threat to humanity.”
There is no background music and no text for the majority of the ad, starkly contrasting with many of Clinton’s campaign ads in this cycle. But its simplicity may connect with moderate voters in their living rooms.
In the event a relatable Republican like Bogert cannot convince his peers to vote against Trump, the Clinton campaign has also used clips of conservative politicians and advisors trying to convey a lack of trust in Trump.
“Unfit,” a Hillary for America ad released in August, features sound bites from Michael Hayden, the former CIA director under George W. Bush; Max Boot, a conservative foreign policy analyst; and Charles Krauthammer, a conservative columnist for The Washington Post.
All three right-wing voices question Trump’s judgment and plant fear in viewers’ minds about what he would do if he had access to nuclear weapons, an issue Clinton wants to keep at the forefront of the campaign.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘Do I want a person of that temperament in control of the nuclear codes?’” Krauthammer says. “As of now, I’d have to say no.”
Hillary for America continued its bipartisan assault on Trump with a September ad titled “Agree,” using voices from such Republican politicians as Mitt Romney, Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake. As opposed to the bureaucrats that condemned Trump’s glib treatment of nuclear weapons, these are legislators suggesting to their conservative constituencies that Trump will not represent their views.
The ad does not have much substance beyond a condemnation of Trump, but its power is in the magnitude of elected Republicans that have spoken out against him.
Politicians crossing party lines for endorsements is not a new phenomenon. Former Democratic governor and senator Zell Miller gave a fiery speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention endorsing Bush. Four years later, former Democratic senator Joe Lieberman — Al Gore’s running mate in his 2000 presidential campaign — endorsed John McCain for president at the Republican National Convention.
In 1964, Barry Goldwater alienated many moderate Republicans with his aggressive stance on the Soviet Union and nuclear weapons, prompting the original “Confessions of a Republican” ad. Goldwater’s candidacy also led to the infamous “Daisy” ad that showed a little girl in a meadow, pulling petals from a flower before an atomic bomb went off.
But no candidate has ever launched as expansive an advertising campaign with help from the other side as Clinton has this year. Trump is one of the most divisive presidential candidates the U.S. has seen, and Clinton — who is not viewed very favorably in her own right — is keeping the spotlight on Trump with this strategy.
By using Republicans to her advantage, Clinton is taking the focus away from wedge issues that divide the population, like gun control and race relations, and instead highlighting bipartisan foreign policy questions. Even if rural voters in swing states do not support Clinton’s liberal policies, many probably would be uncomfortable with the U.S. dropping nuclear bombs to solve the world’s problems. Clinton is trying to convince these voters that this would be a real possibility in a Trump presidency.
And if they don’t believe Clinton, they are likely to believe the Republicans they have lived with, respected and voted for in the past.
As fact-checking grows, journalists don’t always agree about which claims to check, but when they do, they nearly always concur on whether it’s true or false.
A Duke Reporters’ Lab examination of seven fact-checking organizations during the second presidential debate — PolitiFact, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Bloomberg, NPR, Politico and CNN — found they examined 81 different claims, with 24 of the claims checked by more than one outlet. (Note: These are claims that were checked during and immediately after the debate. Our findings don’t include any fact-checks done long after the debate had ended.)
The Reporters’ Lab also found that fact-checkers nearly always reached the same conclusions. Of the 24 claims checked by multiple outlets, the fact-checkers disagreed for only three.
Whenever an outlet published a fact-check, student researchers from the Reporters’ Lab logged it in a spreadsheet with the statement, the rating and the link and grouped all the fact-checks of the same claim together.
The most common form of live fact-checking is within a liveblog or a single webpage that can be updated with each fact-check, a format that The New York Times, Bloomberg, The Washington Post, Politico, CNN and PolitiFact used. These organizations provided brief analyses of the claims to justify how they rated them, if there were ratings at all. Several organizations also tweeted links to previous fact-checks.
The New York Times, Politico, CNN and PolitiFact all had articles or blog posts dedicated to fact-checking, while The Washington Post and Bloomberg interspersed fact-checks throughout their liveblogs with general analysis of the debate.
PolitiFact also wound up publishing 10 new fact-checks of statements made during the debate between the conclusion of the 90-minute spectacle Sunday night and the early morning hours Monday.
NPR maintained an annotated transcript of the debate, with a fact-check inserted wherever there was a questionable claim.
Six outlets debunked Trump’s claim that he opposed the Iraq War from the beginning. But not all fact-checks were as straightforward as the conclusion for that claim, which Trump has continued to flaunt in the face of audio evidence and universal agreement among fact-checkers for his entire campaign.
Trump’s statement early in the debate that former president Bill Clinton “was impeached and lost his license to practice law and paid an $850,000 fine to one of the women, Paula Jones,” created some disagreement among fact-checkers.
Politico and The New York Times used the same evidence to come to different ratings. Politico’s primary conclusion in the first sentence of its analysis was that “Donald Trump is wrong to say Bill Clinton paid a fine,” arguing that the $850,000 payment was a “settlement” instead. The fact-check went on to acknowledge that Clinton was impeached and did have his license to practice law suspended.
The New York Times rated the same statement “mostly accurate,” choosing to focus on the impeachment and the suspension of Clinton’s license to practice law. Although the Times acknowledged the difference between a settlement and a fine, they did it toward the end of the fact-check and did not magnify that part of the statement as much as Politico did.
Politico and the Times also disagreed on Trump’s claim that Hillary Clinton deleted 33,000 emails after getting a subpoena, which Politico called “misleading” and the Times called “mostly true.” Although Politico acknowledged that Clinton did technically delete the emails after getting a subpoena, reporter Josh Gerstein pointed out that “she gave the instruction to erase those messages in late 2014, before she was subpoenaed.” The Times did not mention this detail.
PolitiFact split the difference on this statement and rated it Half True.
Her ads typically contain snippets from Trump’s speeches and interviews, in order to draw attention to the instances where he has incited violence or insulted women (or veterans, or immigrants, or people with disabilities…). And in the ads, the targets of his comments are usually watching, shaking their heads and expressing hurt and indignation in reaction to the soundbites.
In each spot, we watch individuals react as their demographic comes up to bat. In an ad called “Watching”, a woman gets ready for work when a 1994 ABC interview with Trump comes on the TV. “Putting a wife to work is a very dangerous thing,” he says. “I don’t want to sound too much like a chauvinist…”
Seconds later, a Korean War veteran looks up from his seat at the bar to watch as Trump says at the Iowa Family Leadership Summit earlier this year, “[John McCain is] a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”
In “Role Models”, unsupervised children watch while Trump makes claims on their TVs. Among other sound bites, the ad highlights the line, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” which was said during an Iowa campaign stop. What’s more, the children don’t seem fazed by the comments he’s making.
Some ads prove that his comments anger more than just their targets. In “Wall”, a diverse group of college-aged men and women glare into the camera as Trump is broadcast on a screen behind them. “When Mexico sends its people…they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists…,” he says in the speech announcing his intent to run for president.
With less than 35 days left in the campaign, Clinton’s camp is working to capture female, minority and millennial voters. The ads discussed target people that fit the bill — working women, parents of young children, immigrants and college students — and personalize Clinton’s message: Trump won’t really help you.
The groups responsible for these ads — Hillary for America, Priorities USA Action and NextGen California — are trying to illustrate how a Trump presidency would only disrespect their experiences and their voices.
But the Clinton campaign is stepping up to this challenge in an unusual presidential election cycle, one in which rhetoric is everything and concrete policy is seemingly irrelevant. Instead of using fact-based research and policy plans to convince voters of their abilities, Trump and Clinton are relying heavily on how voters are feeling as opposed to the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses.
You can see this phenomenon in the Duke Ad Watch database of campaign commercials. Just one-third of pro-Trump ads have factual claims in them — and the same statistic is true of pro-Clinton ads. One-third! For the reader who doesn’t transcribe political ads for 10 hours a week, I’ll put that into perspective for you:
In Iowa, Patty Judge is challenging incumbent Chuck Grassley for his seat in the U.S. Senate. Two-thirds of the pro-Grassley and pro-Judge ads that have aired contain factual claims about the candidate or their opponent.
The stark difference in fact usage signals that the Iowans’ conversation is not focused on whether Grassley is brash or Judge is likable. It means they’re zeroing in on what each candidate has — or hasn’t — done for Iowans: whether they’ve created jobs, or fostered a wind energy economy, or enabled Congress’ inaction throughout Barack Obama’s presidency.
So what are Trump and Clinton talking about in their ads, if not the facts?
They’re exploring whether each candidate feels like a trustworthy choice for president. Whether they’re racist, sexist or just really earnest (“Does Trump really speak for you?” asks an ad called “Speak”). Whether each candidate has the compassion, worldview and energy necessary to understand communities’ — voters’ — daily challenges.
They’re working to convince you that they’ll be your relatable, down-to-earth champion through thick and thin.