Clinton, Trump Poised to Go Negative in Campaign Ad Wars
On June 7, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders concluded what had become, by the end, a contentious Democratic presidential primary. As the race wore on, the candidates grew more aggressive in speeches, in debates, and on Twitter. Sanders in particular criticized Clinton’s hawkishness and sympathy toward Wall Street, attacks amplified by the media.
But this animosity was entirely absent from one important realm. According to Kantar Media, Clinton and Sanders aired 206,528 spots between them this year—and not one was deemed “negative” by the analysts in Kantar’s Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG).
“In an open presidential primary, this is probably unprecedented,” says Elizabeth Wilner, senior vice president for political advertising at Kantar.
Indeed, Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, faced roughly $62 million in attack ads during the primaries. Most of the spots were aired by fellow Republicans. “We’ve never seen a contrast like this before,” says Wilner.
Republican strategists hope this disparity in attacks will redound to their benefit. Clinton’s unfavorability ratings are only somewhat better than Trump’s, even though she faced no negative ads from Sanders. (GOP campaigns and super-PACs did feature her in a few ads.) Republicans believe they can inflict more damage. “People think she has these really high negatives, but in reality nobody has laid a glove on her yet,” says Sean Spicer, chief strategist for the Republican National Committee. “Once you see a full-fledged ad campaign to reinforce her negatives, she’ll have a lot further to fall.”
The strange truce in the Democratic primary was due to a couple of quirks. Sanders doesn’t believe in attack ads. The closest he came was a commercial that briefly flashed an image of Clinton’s name in a newspaper headline and aired only in South Carolina. And Clinton initially felt she didn’t need to bother attacking Sanders. Later on, it became clear that she couldn’t afford to—she’ll need to win over his supporters to beat Trump. “While running negative spots tends to be more effective than people like to admit, it also drives up your own candidate’s negatives,” says Ben LaBolt, a strategist on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. “Given where Clinton is right now in terms of favorability rating, it’s not a surprise that she didn’t run negative spots against Sanders during the primary.” That could help Clinton as she tries to win Sanders voters.
The absence of negative ads is a marked shift from 2008, when Obama spent $58 million on primary ads, while Clinton spent $33 million. Although CMAG didn’t measure sentiment that year, both candidates aired negative spots. The most iconic was a Clinton ad boring in on Obama’s lack of executive experience. “It’s 3 a.m., and your children are safe and asleep,” a narrator intoned over images of slumbering kids. “But there’s a phone in the White House, and it’s ringing. Something’s happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call.”
The forcefulness of the 3 a.m. ad temporarily upended the race. “We actually only spent $50,000 on airtime,” says Mark Penn, the ad’s creator and Clinton’s chief strategist in 2008. But it got picked up by cable news channels, and that “set off a whole debate” about who would better handle a foreign crisis, Penn says.
The hit on Obama came in the form of a television ad because political strategists have historically avoided letting candidates deliver such attacks for fear it would poison their image. “It’s odd that the candidates themselves are now carrying the most negative messages,” says Penn. “It used to be, you left that for the ads.” One reason for the change is Trump, who’s demonstrated that the media is now far more apt to pick up attacks made by the candidates.
While Clinton hasn’t yet faced the full blast of Trump’s advertising onslaught, Democratic strategists claim that her free pass in the primaries doesn’t leave her vulnerable. “It’s difficult for an opponent to define someone who’s already so well-known as a candidate,” says LaBolt.
What’s more, says Mark Longabaugh, a senior adviser and media consultant to the Sanders campaign, tough ads during the primaries can cripple a nominee in the fall: “After a lot of years in this business, let me tell you, it is always better going into a general election when you do not have a lot of damage from primary ads being run against you.” Mitt Romney’s experience in 2012 is a good illustration. Republican primary opponents such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry branded him a “vulture capitalist,” an attack Obama picked up and used to defeat him. An even better example is Bob Dole. “Dole limped into the ’96 election extremely damaged,” says Longabaugh. “Steve Forbes just carpet-bombed him in the Arizona primary and in Iowa, and [Bill] Clinton ended up winning both in the fall. It’s a tangible example of how the damage carries over.”
By this measure, Trump is the more vulnerable candidate heading into the fall. And Clinton has already begun to press the attack on his fitness for office first raised by his Republican primary opponents. On June 6, after Trump attacked the Mexican ancestry of Gonzalo Curiel, the judge overseeing a civil case against him involving Trump University, Clinton’s campaign produced a negative ad. It featured a succession of critics who all shared one thing in common. As Clinton herself tweeted: “.@realdonaldtrump’s bigoted comments about a Latino judge are so disgusting, even other Republicans are offended.”