November 9, 2016
The votes are cast and Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. And it wasn’t a traditional paid political TV advertising strategy that got him there. At every juncture, during the primary season and then on through the general election, he was out-advertised by his opponents, though to be sure he trounced them all with “earned” media, as TV news shows eagerly broadcast the latest controversies and rhetorical flourishes.
Nevertheless, it’s worth looking back at which themes Trump chose to emphasize in his paid TV advertisements, particularly in the last weeks before Tuesday’s election. They are a window into how he perceives himself and his appeal to the American people, and provide a clue to how he will attempt to govern.
The five ads his campaign aired most in the ten key battleground TV markets we tracked over past two weeks are of a piece: they emphasize a dark vision of where we are as a country, putting the blame squarely on Hillary Clinton for having gotten us to this sorry juncture, counterposed with images of Trump as an agent of change, a competent businessman who will “turn Washington upside down.”
Here’s the ad the Trump campaign aired more than any other during the last weeks of the campaign, up through November 7, across all the markets we tracked, more than 3,600 times. The theme: that Donald Trump is an agent of change, and Clinton brings 30 years of baggage and failed policies.
“Hillary Clinton won’t change Washington. She’s been there 30 years. Taxes went up. Terrorism spread. Jobs vanished. But special interests and Washington insiders thrived. Donald Trump will turn Washington upside down, day one. Real change that puts Americans first. A vote for Hillary is a vote for more of the same. A vote for Donald Trump is a vote for change that makes America great again.”
PolitiFact reported: “The charges leave out important context or are flat-out wrong. And needless to say, they inflate the influence Clinton had as first lady, senator and secretary of state,” and went on to report that taxes are not up significantly, that terrorism has increased since 2000, but that one expert contends it was worse in the 1970s and 1980s, and that the unemployment rate is lower than it was in 1992.
This ad aired heavily across all the tracked markets since November 1 through Election Day. It strikes a similar contrast theme, but rather than dwelling on Clinton’s past, makes claims about what her presidency will bring–stagnation, fewer jobs, crime, and diminished status abroad. Trump, however, argues the ad, will bring a brighter future:
“The American moment is here. Two choices. Two Americas. Decided by you. Hillary Clinton will keep us on the road to stagnation. Fewer jobs. Rising crime. America diminished at home and abroad. Donald Trump will bring the change we’re waiting for. America. Better. Stronger. More prosperous for everyone. A plan for tomorrow. A future brighter than the past. The choice is yours.”
This ad strikes a much darker tone, with no light, and aired primarily in the Boston (New Hampshire); Denver, Colorado; Tampa, Florida; and Las Vegas, Nevada markets from October 18 through November 2. In this ad, the refrain “Hillary failed,” is made after charge after charge—that her bad decisions led to ISIS, that Americans died because she did nothing, and so forth. There is no positive contrast offered:
“Is America safer because of Hillary Clinton? No. Hillary failed. Her Russian reset provoked Putin. Led to wars in Europe. Hillary failed. Her bad decisions led to ISIS and horrific terror. Hillary failed. Iran got nuclear access. And North Korea, more aggressive. Hillary failed. In Benghazi Americans died because she did nothing. Hillary failed as secretary of state and now the world is unraveling.”
The Trump campaign hit hard with this ad on the email controversy that resurfaced after FBI Director James Comey announced he was investigating a new cache of emails found on former Rep. Anthony Wiener’s computer, as part of an unrelated investigation of alleged texts sent by the former congressman to a 15-year-old girl. Two days before the election, Comey announced that, after analyzing the emails, he had not changed his decision to halt any further investigation of Clinton. The ad, however, ran through Election Day.
“Decades of lies, cover ups and scandals, have finally caught up with Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton is under FBI investigation again, after her emails were found on pervert Anthony Weiner’s laptop. Think about that. America’s most sensitive secrets, unlawfully sent, received, and exposed, by Hillary Clinton, her staff, and Anthony Weiner. Hillary cannot lead a nation while crippled by a criminal investigation. Hillary Clinton, unfit to serve.”
In this ad, which was targeted to Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Denver, Colorado; Las Vegas, Nevada; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina between October 18 and November 2, the narrator sticks to positive messages about Trump, emphasizing his experience as a “builder” who can “rebuild the American dream”:
“It takes a builder to rebuild the American dream, and Donald Trump has the blueprint. Tax relief for working people, a 30 percent tax cut. Peace of mind for working families. An average $5,000 childcare tax reduction, and paid maternity leave. Lower healthcare costs, expanding competition by allowing people to purchase coverage across state lines. This is the blueprint. This is the builder, Donald Trump.”
The Political TV Ad Archive tracked political ad airings in ten key battleground state markets during the general elections, the great majority of which featured competitive Senate races as well: Boston, MA (New Hampshire); Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Cleveland, Ohio; Denver, Colorado; Las Vegas, Nevada; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Phoenix, Arizona; Philadelphia, PA; Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; and Tampa, Florida. All ads are archived on the Political TV Ad Archive website, and data on ad airings are downloadable.