November 11, 2016
Ronald Reagan was famously called the “teflon president“–all criticism of him seemed to slide right off. President-Elect Donald Trump is perhaps a new, updated version, triumphing over a negative political ad onslaught that relied heavily on his own provocative statements and an extensive public record of his business dealings.
A review of political TV ad attacks against Trump throughout the 2016 elections shows that TV screens in key markets, such as Cleveland, Ohio and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, were filled with at least 45,716 airings of political ads that criticized Trump exclusively; include ads that targeted Trump along with other candidates, such as senators running in select battleground states, and the number rises to 59,175.
Two-thirds of these political ad attacks came from Clinton’s campaign and the primary super PAC supporting her, Priorities USA. But a portion came from his Republican primary opponents, including Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio, and super PACs supporting them. And some came from conservative groups such as the American Future Fund and Club for Growth.
When taken together with the ads that Trump ran during the final weeks of the campaign, a picture emerges of the messages that worked to produce Trump’s upset victory. Still, it’s important to remember that Clinton won a slight majority in the popular vote, while losing in the electoral college. It may not be that the anti-Trump messages were so ineffective, or that Trump’s were extremely persuasive, but rather that his were strong enough that he withstood the bombardment.
This is a limited set: the Political TV Ad Archive tracked 23 key TV markets in the primaries and 10 in the general election. But these markets were selected because they were the major markets in key states; in the primaries, because of their order in holding caucuses and primaries (i.e. Iowa and New Hampshire); and in the general elections because they were in battleground states.
There were two distinctive waves of attacks on Trump. The first peaked on March 14, the day before the Florida primaries, when Trump’s opponents, who first shied away from focusing on him, began to go negative, as Farai Chideya of FiveThirtyEight.com reported at the time. This first wave concentrated on Trump’s business dealings.
For example, the American Future Fund, a conservative group that has been associated with the Koch brothers, ran a trio of ads (one, two, and three) featuring former students from Trump University, talking about their negative experiences and how they believed their money was wasted.
These ads together earned a rare “Geppetto’s checkmark” from Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, who wrote: “All three victims in the ads tell a similar story of falling for the Trump brand name, and then discovering that they needed to keep paying more money to gain insight and expertise—which was not forthcoming. In other words, Trump University appears to have been a classic bait-and-switch operation, designed to lure people into paying increasing sums of money.” Here is one of these ads.
Here’s another ad that ran in Florida ahead of the primary, sponsored by the super PAC “Our Principles PAC,” which charges that Trump hired illegal immigrants. At the time, the Cady Zuvich, a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, wrote that the super PAC was funded by Marlene Ricketts, the wife of Joe Ricketts; Joe was founder of Ameritrade and the family owns the Chicago Cubs. The Ricketts had been supporters of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in his presidency bid before he dropped out.
And here’s a Club for Growth ad that also aired in Florida, which charged Trump with hiding “behind bankruptcy laws to duck paying his bills” and that he “tried to kick an elderly widow out of her home through eminent domain.” The ad also says he won’t “do a thing to China and Mexico.”
Trump won the Florida primary with 46 percent of the vote; his closest rival, Marco Rubio, who represents Florida in the U.S. Senate, won just 27 percent.
The second wave of anti-Trump ads came in the general elections, beginning in September and peaking a few days before November 8. The great majority of these were sponsored by Clinton’s campaign and the super PAC Priorities USA.
The final ads concentrated on Trump’s character, featuring audio and video clips of the president-elect talking about women; zoning in on argument he was not fit to handle the nuclear codes, and featuring images of children and young girls watching.
Here’s an example of an ad sponsored by the Clinton campaign that aired in the last days before the election in all the battleground markets we tracked. Children are pictured watching television in darkened rooms while audio and video plays of Trump saying things like, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” “And you can tell them to go f*#@ themselves.”
And here’s a representative ad sponsored by Priorities USA that aired up through Election Day across seven key markets: Cleveland, Ohio; Boston, Massachusetts (New Hampshire); Denver, Colorado; Las Vegas, Nevada; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; and Tampa, Florida.
It will take time and thoughtful analysis to understand how and why Trump won the 2016 presidential race; political ads are just one piece–albeit an important one–of the puzzle. At the Political TV Ad Archive, we’re hoping the political ads and the data we collected through the course of the race will prove helpful to researchers, journalists, and the public to explore what happened and why.