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Wesleyan Study: Presidential TV Ads Most Positive In Years

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Despite the ugly nature of this year’s presidential campaign between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, the advertising in the last month of the campaign had been more positive than in any other presidential cycle since 2000. That’s the finding of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks and analyzes ads aired in federal and state elections.

WSHU’s Senior Political Reporter Ebong Udoma has been looking into the findings of that study and he sat down with Morning Edition Host Tom Kuser to discuss what he learned. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Ebong, this appears to be a surprising finding considering the nastiness on the presidential campaign trail?

Tom, it does seem counterintuitive. But the candidates are making their closing arguments now and are trying to be positive. I spoke with Erika Franklin Fowler, the co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. Here’s her interpretation.

“I think there are two things that are going on. One is that Trump is an unusual candidate and has very unusual advertising strategies. He was off-air all summer. He didn’t put up an ad until August 19. And when he did, he came up with a mix of negative and contrast and no positive. We tend to see a lot of candidates start off positive, and then they will return to it in the weeks before Election Day. We didn’t see that from Trump. He didn’t put up a positive spot until the middle of September. So that’s interesting, and that’s part of the reason why it’s been more positive than it has been. I think also a secondary reason is with two relatively unpopular candidates, there’s some need for positivity on-air to counter the overwhelmingly negative narrative that there has been in the campaign.”

Ebong, could it also be that Clinton is airing a lot of positive ads because she doesn’t have much paid ad competition from Trump?

I think that might explain it. You know, television advertising in this presidential campaign is down considerably from where it was in 2012. In fact, if you look at the total spots on the air over the last month, they are less than half of what we saw during the same period in 2012. Here’s Fowler again.

“Pro-Clinton ads are out-airing pro-Trump ads by more than three to one. Now it is the case that Clinton has aired fewer ads than Obama had at this time in 2012. This is in part because she hasn’t had any competition on-air.”

But I should add here that Clinton went negative this week. She started running an updated version of Lyndon Johnson’s infamous Daisy Ad against Barry Goldwater that ran once in the 1964 campaign. But we haven’t seen anything similar from the Trump campaign, who is still getting a lot of free TV time from his rallies.  

The original 1964 Daisy Ad:

The updated Daisy Ad just released by the Clinton campaign:


Okay, but if the Trump campaign is not running many ads against Clinton, what about the rest of the Republican Party? Aren’t there some Republican PACs that could have taken up the slack?

They are, but the Wesleyan Media Project finds that it’s actually the campaigns of Senate Republicans that have picked up the slack. Clinton is getting attacked by Senate Republican advertising far more than Trump is by Senate Democratic advertising – 14 percent of the GOP ads attack Clinton, only two percent of the Democratic ads attack Trump. Here’s Fowler’s take.

“What’s interesting about this is that Republicans are invoking Clinton’s name as a way of signaling that they can provide an important check on a Clinton presidency. What is interesting is the flip comparison that we expected to see more Democratic Senate ads really going after Trump, to try and pin that on their Republican challengers and we’ve seen many fewer ads that actually do that. There’s only about two percent that invoke Trump’s name in an unfavorable way.”

So, Ebong, since Trump has relied less on paid TV ads and found other ways – such as social media – to get his message out, does Fowler think we are seeing the demise of TV advertising in national political campaigns?

No. Fowler believes the Trump campaign is totally unusual and driven more by Trump’s personality than any drastic shift in the landscape. Here’s what she says.

“We are certainly not calling for the death of television advertising. I think those calls are premature. It’s still a very important tool. It’s certainly not going to be the only tool. Campaign and candidate have to think broader and have to think about how to reach their audiences multiple ways. Television advertising will remain the way you talk to the widest number of people in a given spot. But again, it’s only one tool.”

So the TV business can count on political advertising to boost revenue for a few more election cycles?

Yeah, I guess so.

Thank you, Ebong,

Thank you, Tom.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.