Midterm Ads May Get Emotional

The Virginia governor race could offer clues to 2018 strategies.

Protestors interrupt Virginia Gov.-elect Ralph Northam as he addresses supporters at an election-night party at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. on Nov. 7.
AP Photo/Cliff Owen
Danielle Bernstein
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Danielle Bernstein
Nov. 19, 2017, 8 p.m.

Get ready for more emotional political ads from Democrats.

Republicans were outraged when the Latino Victory Fund released an ad against Ed Gillespie in the final week of the Virginia governor race that depicted a white man in a Confederate-flag-flying pickup truck charging after children of color. The spot itself may not be replicated, but after it went viral and 67 percent of Latinos voted for Democratic candidate Ralph Northam, Democrats could build on its hard-hitting tone in 2018.

“What you saw in that ad that is not inherent in normal Democratic advertising, unfortunately, but that the Republicans are often very good at, is emotional content,” said Colin Rogero, producer and director of the “American Nightmare” ad.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign reached for that in 2016 with “Mirrors,” a gut-wrenching ad that overlayed Donald Trump’s derogatory comments about women and images of young girls.

“We’ve reached a point in our political history where ads that talk about your five-point plan or that regurgitate talking points about an issue that we’ve heard 500 times before aren’t going to cut it,” said Anson Kaye, a partner at political advertising firm GMMB who helped create the spot. “I think one reason for that is how disenchanted voters have become with the political process, and so their skepticism about ads is sky-high.”

With a more skeptical and polarized electorate, depending on the context of specific elections, Democrats will likely attempt to tap into voters’ raw emotions more than in the past.

“We’re trying to have this ultimately rational conversation with voters,” Rogero said. But Republicans are “building an emotional connection to them, and in those two scenarios, the emotional connection always wins.”

But controversial ads can also cause backlash, and it wasn’t always clear before Northam’s 9-point victory what effect the ad would have on the electorate. The Northam campaign attempted to curb any negative repercussions by distancing itself from the ad and praising its removal from the airwaves.

“The ad itself was a blunt instrument,” said Steve Passwaiter, a vice president at Kantar Media, a media-monitoring agency. “It would have been quite natural to wonder if this was a sort of heightened ‘basket of deplorables’ moment for the Northam campaign.”

The same concern came up with “Mirrors,” Kaye said, which was aimed at women voters.

“I think that in our testing, we found the ad performed really well with the folks that we thought we needed to win over,” Kaye said. “I don’t have any doubt that that ad turned off a whole bunch of people who voted for Trump. The question is whether any of those folks would have voted for us anyway.”

In the midterms, Democrats have a House target list that includes nearly two dozen seats that Clinton carried. So in a significant portion of the battlefield, there will likely be more focus in messaging on turning out existing party voters than persuading others.

“We have a sufficiently polarized electorate that you’re not going to change a lot of minds, but the key is to get people to the polling booth,” said Vanderbilt professor John Geer, who specializes in political advertising.

As TV ads in general become less effective and with digital becoming a more dominant force in campaigns, more controversial, visceral, and cinematic ads “could get attention,” Geer said. The Latino Victory Fund spot likely would have had far less traction had cable-news shows and social media not blown up over it.

For voters for whom matters of identity may not be persuasive—both “American Nightmare” and “Mirrors” were targeted toward specific demographics that were part of the famed Obama coalition—walking the line between policy and emotion in ads may prove more challenging.

“Demonstrating a common sense of the struggle and demonstrating an authentic concern about that is probably more important than the details of your economic policy,” Kaye said. “If voters are concerned about the economy, as they often are, then somewhere in your arsenal ought to be ads that speak to that anxiety.”

“I don’t think you’re limited in terms of the areas to talk about, if you’re trying to do something that connects on an emotional level,” Kaye continued. “It’s just a different way of approaching the kinds of topics that Democrats care about.”

Ads next year may not need to be as aggressive as “American Nightmare,” which came in response to racially charged ads from the Gillespie campaign that tied Northam’s legislative record to the prevalence of the violent MS-13 gang. With House Democrats targeting more than 90 GOP-held seats, the ads in each district and race will be designed to fit the varying electorates.

But even if other campaigns don’t need an “American Nightmare”-type ad, said Rogero, “it frames an overall kind of way that Democrats should be comfortable communicating.”

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