Missing From Democratic 2020 Ad Wars: Attacks on Rivals

Missing From Democratic 2020 Ad Wars: Attacks on Rivals

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 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 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 channeling voters still unnerved by the 2016 election and so wholly concerned with defeating Donald 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 Mr. 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 Julián Castro campaigns. She added that the obsession with beating Mr. 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,” Ms. 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 Mr. 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 percent 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 percent of ads. In New Hampshire, it was the economy, also addressed in about 9 percent of ads.

There is also the tsunami of ads from Michael R. Bloomberg, who isn’t 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 Mr. 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 — Representative Tulsi Gabbard attacked Senator Kamala Harris’s record as prosecutor, Ms. 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 Senator 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 popularized 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.”

The closest any ad came to a negative attack in the 2020 race was aired by a super PAC backing Cory Booker, the candidate whose defining message is one of harmony and unity.

“He’s a Rhodes Scholar, a uniter, a successful mayor,” a narrator says with a hint of sarcasm, as “Hail to the Chief” plays while a Pete Buttigieg photo montage appears onscreen. The images and soundtrack suddenly fizzle. “No, not that guy,” the narrator says, with a big “Not that guy” splashed across Mr. Buttigieg’s face. “It’s Cory Booker.”

The ad, backed by roughly $300,000 from the super PAC, “United We Win,” ran exclusively in Iowa. When he was shown the ad during an interview with CNN, Mr. Booker said he had not seen it, and was caught “off guard” by its existence.

“I celebrate the people who are in the race, and my campaign is not about tearing anybody down,” he said.

Another contributing factor to the lack of hostility on the airwaves can be attributed to the absence of major super PACs in the Democratic primary, as most of the leading candidates have sworn off any support from a super PAC.

“If you look in any advertising campaign, outside groups are the ones who are much more likely to go negative,” said Ken Goldstein, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. “So if you remove them from the playing field, you remove a big well of money for negative ads.”

History, Dr. Goldstein noted, could also be guiding the campaigns in 2020. Though the 2008 and 2016 Democratic presidential primaries were contentious, neither featured a particularly negative attack ad. While Mr. Sanders released an ad in 2016 criticizing banks that corrupt politics with “speaking fees,” he made no mention of Hillary Clinton. In 2008, Ms. Clinton’s famous “3 a.m.” ad implied that Barack Obama wasn’t prepared for sudden foreign crises, but it made no mention of Mr. Obama.

In the 2004 campaign, however, Howard Dean and Richard A. Gephardt began trading attacks on the air in the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses. While the negative advertising was effective in bringing down both Mr. Dean and Mr. Gephardt’s poll numbers, neither candidate actually benefited. Instead, John Kerry, the eventual nominee, did.

“In any multicandidate race, there’s a danger in going negative in that your negative ad works in knocking down one of your opponents, but benefits a third opponent,” Dr. Goldstein said. “That’s even more the case now when you have five or six top candidates.”

But, he said, the cease-fire may not hold for long after a vast field begins to winnow.

“This is the case when it’s multicandidate,” Dr. Goldstein noted, “But if it’s Biden vs. Sanders or Buttigieg vs. Warren — if this is a two-person race — forget all that.”

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