I spent some time watching a bunch of campaign ads for candidates running for Congress, Senate and Governor. Most were from early primary states like Texas and Illinois. President Trump plays a starring role in many, if not most of them. Democratic candidates pledge “to stop Donald Trump” while Republicans boast of their support for the president and/or identify with his cultural and policy proposals.
This isn’t a particularly surprising, or novel, primary campaign strategy. Democrats universally dislike Trump — (87 percent strongly disapprove of the president in the latest Quinnipiac poll) — while Republicans are united in their support of the president (71 percent of Republicans say they strongly approve of Trump in that same Quinnipiac poll).
Democrats’ ads promise to take America back from Trump, while Republicans promise to help Trump make America great again.
Here are some examples:
From the Democrats:
From the Republicans:
However, there were about 12,000 more anti-Obama ads run at that point in the 2014 cycle, than anti-Trump ads run during these past fifteen months. More strikingly, more than ten times as many pro-Trump ads have been aired in the last year than pro-Obama ads run during this same time period four years ago. In other words, Republicans are more willing to embrace the president in their advertising today than Democrats were back in 2013-14.
All State and Federal Broadcast/Cable Advertising:
One likely reason for the discrepancy between the number of Obama and Trump ads is that back in 2014, Democrats were defending Senate seats in red states where Obama was unpopular, like Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska, West Virginia and South Dakota.
Moreover, this isn’t a perfect apples-to-apples comparison. First, we are comparing Obama’s second term with Trump’s first. Unfortunately, we don’t have comparable data from Obama’s first term since CMAG coded the ads differently back then. Second, we aren’t comparing identical districts/states/special elections/issues to one another for each cycle. For example, I suspect that a lot of those pro-Trump spots were from outside groups lobbying for the tax cut or repeal of Obamacare.
Even so, there are some similarities between the two presidents at these different points in their presidencies. At this point in the election cycle, both had dangerously low approval ratings. According to Gallup data, Obama was at 42 percent at this point in 2014, while Trump is currently sitting at 39 percent job approval. Obama had a better overall job approval rating in the off-year — he averaged in the mid-to-high 40 percent range, while Trump averaged about 39 percent in his first year in office.
Both also had similar approval ratings among their own partisans. Both averaged 83 percent approval among their base. So, why are more candidates/campaigns willing to embrace Trump in their advertising in 2017 and early 2018, than they were willing to embrace Obama in 2013 and early 2014?
There was a time when proving one’s fealty to the party in a primary contest meant highlighting one’s deep roots in the district or one’s conservative bona fides. Now, it is as important — if not more — for a GOP candidate/group to show support for the president and his agenda. There is no longer a distinction between the Republican party and the president; they are now one in the same. More important, even among GOP partisans, the president is more popular than the GOP Congress. If you are going to appeal to your base, at least attach yourself to something that they like.
As we move forward in this cycle, it will be fascinating to watch the frequency with which Trump’s name gets raised in general election contests. Most of the competitive House races, for example, are taking place in districts that Trump narrowly won or narrowly lost. Tying oneself to Trump in any way — good or bad — can become more of a liability in these types of districts. Democrats expect to pivot to issues like health care this fall, while Republicans will talk up the economy. But, we also know that Trump is the sun around which all politics now revolves. He is the one setting the tone and the debate and it will be all but impossible for candidates to avoid reacting and responding to him.
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