Washington: Four years ago in Iowa and New Hampshire, a political circular firing squad erupted during nearly every prime-time commercial break. Republican presidential candidates and their allied super PACs unleashed a cacophony of personal, caustic attack ads as they sought to break through in a historically large field.
This year, with an even larger field on the Democratic side, the tone on televisions in Iowa and New Hampshire is decidedly different. Almost universally, the Democratic ads seek to address and quell a source of national anxiety — be it about President Donald Trump, prescription drug costs, corruption, foreign policy or a changing economy.
And they’re doing it politely.
“Give people a fair deal and real economic power,” Tom Steyer, the biggest advertiser in Iowa, says in his most recent ad.
“Put humanity first,” intones Andrew Yang in his newest ad.
In total, Democrats spent nearly $30 million (Dh110.17 million) on the airwaves in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2019, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad tracking firm.
Not a single candidate has run a negative ad on television targeting other Democrats.
The relatively placid ads of the 2020 Democratic campaign reflect the risk-averse primary contest, in which candidates have been loath to unleash any negativity on an opponent. Instead, they are channelling voters still unnerved by the 2016 election and so wholly concerned with defeating Trump that any potential damage done during the Democratic primary could be viewed as unforgivable.
While Democratic voters in Iowa find negative advertising particularly off-putting, it appears that they want to both get rid of Trump and eradicate his confrontational approach to politics.
“In Iowa, those voters, they don’t like negative ads in general, and they don’t like them right now because Trump is so negative,” said Kelly Gibson, a Democratic media strategist who has advised both the Andrew Yang and Julian Castro campaigns. She added that the obsession with beating Trump had made Democrats overly anxious about the primary process, as well.
“The idea of cutting each other down somehow hurting us in the general election, whichever campaign did that would get a lot of pushback, pitchforks and torches from the voters,” Gibson said. “There’s just seemingly no tolerance for it.”
Also in play are memories of 2016, when the bitter campaign between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders left many supporters of Sanders alienated enough to stay home or vote for a third-party candidate.
In place of any negativity has been a focus on generally positive, biographical messaging. More than 25% of all ads in both Iowa and New Hampshire were either a general positive message or one about a candidate’s character, according to Advertising Analytics. In Iowa, the top issue was health care, addressed in about 9% of ads. In New Hampshire, it was the economy, also addressed in about 9% of ads.
There is also the tsunami of ads from Michael Bloomberg, who is not spending on ads in the first four early states but has dropped more than $165 million on television and digital ads in Super Tuesday states and beyond, according to Advertising Analytics. But Bloomberg has also not gone on the attack against other Democrats.
The apprehension toward negativity among the Democratic candidates has largely been evident in real time as well; when the debates have been marked by hostile attacks — Rep. Tulsi Gabbard attacked Sen. Kamala Harris’ record as prosecutor, Harris went after Joe Biden’s record on busing, to name a couple — other candidates are often quick to try to tamp down any bubbling anger.
“I did not come here to listen to this argument,” interjected Sen. Amy Klobuchar at the sixth debate as a heated discussion over a fund-raiser at a wine cave boiled over. She added that the only way Democrats would win was “not by arguing with each other, but by finding what unites us in getting this done.”
The relative comity among the candidates on the airwaves comes after Republican presidential primaries in 2012 and 2016 that were overwhelmingly negative and seemed to signal a new era for presidential campaigns. With the injection of billions of dollars into such races after the Citizens United decision, leading to the proliferation of deep-pocketed super PACs, an explosion of negative advertising was becoming the norm. The so-called Eleventh Commandment popularised by President Ronald Reagan, which declared that “thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican,” seemed destined for history.
Indeed, at this point in the 2016 presidential primary, Republican candidates and outside groups had spent $55 million on ads, according to Advertising Analytics. But $22 million of that alone came from Right to Rise, the super PAC supporting Jeb Bush, which ran a torrent of negative ads about other candidates.
Larry McCarthy, the chief media strategist for Right to Rise in the 2016 campaign, said the nature of those races was what led to the early onslaught of negative advertising.
In the 2012 and 2016 Republican primaries, he said, “negative ads appeared earlier because the common wisdom was that if poll leaders Gingrich or Trump scored an early victory, they could use that momentum to get on a roll that couldn’t be stopped.” He added, “The ‘20 Democratic race looks different, with Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg and Warren closely bunched, all thinking they have a chance to win or place in one of the first four states.”