You Can Control Your Own Message

Paul Krugman among others has worked himself into high dudgeon over political reporters who accuse the Clinton campaign of not focusing on economic issues–after all, there was so much coverage of the damn emails. Yet the Clinton campaign didn’t help itself either (boldface mine):

If you think back to this year’s presidential campaign and recall a lot of articles mentioning Hillary Clinton’s email troubles and Donald J. Trump’s various controversies, you wouldn’t be wrong. If it seems there were fewer articles about jobs, the economy and taxes, that’s because there were. The temptation to blame news organizations for this imbalance is strong, but there is at least some reason to resist it. Critics have long assailed campaign coverage as focused too much on candidate personality, campaign strategy and assessments of who’s winning, instead of on policies and ideas. But this year, the candidates share the blame.

…But before anyone blames the news media, it’s important to examine what the candidates themselves were talking about over the course of the campaign. If media reports reflect candidate discourse accurately, then it is not merely the media choosing to report on scandals. It might be at least as much the candidates’ choosing to campaign on them that results in unending coverage of traits and characteristics.

To figure out if this was the case, I used data from Kantar Media/CMAG on all the candidates’ campaign ads aired between June and Election Day. I coded all of the appeals in each ad and weighted the appeals by how many times the ads ran on television. Mrs. Clinton made more ads than Mr. Trump, and she vastly out-advertised him, running nearly three times as many ads as he did. All told, over half a million ads were run in 2016 during this period.

The content of the ads is revealing. Both candidates spent most of their television advertising time attacking the other person’s character. In fact, the losing candidate’s ads did little else. More than three-quarters of the appeals in Mrs. Clinton’s advertisements (and nearly half of Mr. Trump’s) were about traits, characteristics or dispositions. Only 9 percent of Mrs. Clinton’s appeals in her ads were about jobs or the economy. By contrast, 34 percent of Mr. Trump’s appeals focused on the economy, jobs, taxes and trade.

Since the start of presidential campaign television advertising in 1952, no campaign has made 76 percent of its television ad appeals about any single topic. On average, traits typically garner about 22 percent of the appeals. The economy typically generates about 28 percent of the appeals. There’s usually much more balance.

You can’t control what the media decides to cover (yet, anyway), but you can control what your message is. You can push that message out to targeted audiences. And if you are going to attack Trump’s character, you can tie it back to economics like this ad does:

We needed a handful of votes in three states in which the white working class matters (just as other demographic groups are critical in other states). Maybe running a campaign targeted at upper-middle class voters, while successful in the primary (that’s who shows up), wasn’t the best strategy when the electoral college is considered. And pages on a website aren’t a targeted message either.

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