Trump, Pelosi appear most in early ads — for the other side

Trump, Pelosi appear most in early ads — for the other side
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Gillum and DeSantis’s first debate GOP warns economy will tank if Dems win Gorbachev calls Trump's withdrawal from arms treaty 'a mistake' MORE and House Democratic Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiGOP warns economy will tank if Dems win Ex-lawmaker urges Americans to publicly confront officials Pelosi heckled by Miami Republicans, Proud Boys at campaign event MORE (Calif.) are the top two targets of political ads this year, according to a new study from the Wesleyan Media Project.

The analysis, which covers nearly 300,000 ads that have aired across the country since January 2017, finds Democrats hitting Trump and Republicans slamming Pelosi as both sides seek to drive their political bases to the polls.


Trump was featured unfavorably in 6 percent of the spots, or about 18,000 total ads, while Pelosi has been featured negatively in 7,000 individual spots.

The co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, Erika Franklin Fowler, said the GOP’s continued focus on Pelosi is remarkable, because Democrats are in the minority and Pelosi has little power to control the direction of the House.

But now that former President Obama is off the stage, Pelosi remains the only Democrat of note in the national consciousness.

“Although presidents and presidential candidates are the most common target in congressional campaign ads, it is noteworthy that Pelosi has consistently been singled out more than any other congressional leader since 2010 despite her minority party status for the bulk of that time,” Fowler said.

Strategists on both sides said early advertising typically serves to introduce a candidate to voters, making it unlikely that a candidate would spend those dollars slamming a national figure like Trump or Pelosi. The percentage of ads that feature an attack on a national leader will likely rise as November’s midterm elections approach and candidates seek to draw comparisons between their opponents and unpopular leaders.

Fowler said she expected the focus on Pelosi to increase as the cycle progresses, because no other Democrat is as well known to the public. Tying a Democrat to their leader is an easy way to pillory that candidate with Washington.

The focus on Pelosi has actually decreased this cycle compared to last cycle, the Wesleyan survey found. Still, Republicans say the San Francisco Democrat remains a potent symbol for their side.

“Pelosi is uniquely useful as a shorthand in advertising because she is the best example of the traits voters hate about congressional Democrats in general,” said Brad Todd, a GOP strategist who has made ads for the National Republican Congressional Committee in recent years. “She is a rigid, ultra-liberal, coastal elitist on both cultural and economic issues.”

But Democrats point to last month’s special election in southwestern Pennsylvania, where Rep.-elect Conor Lamb (D) narrowly won a district Trump carried in 2016 by a wide margin. Lamb distanced himself from Pelosi, and the GOP’s ads tying the two together failed to motivate enough voters.

“House Republicans have faced repeated humiliation this cycle in deep-red districts because they are relying on a stale and failed playbook,” said Meredith Kelly, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. She said Republicans were headed into a midterm cycle “without a coherent message.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerManchin wrestles with progressive backlash in West Virginia The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Health care a top policy message in fall campaigns McConnell says deficits 'not a Republican problem' MORE (D-N.Y.) has been the subject of about 1 percent of all advertisements run so far, but all of those ads have also mentioned Pelosi, Wesleyan researchers found. More Republican candidates actually mention Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders thanks Iowa voters for giving momentum to progressive agenda Manchin wrestles with progressive backlash in West Virginia Arizona newspaper backs Democrat in dead heat Senate race MORE than Schumer, who remains unknown in much of the country.

“Even though [Clinton] is effectively out of politics now, Republicans continue to try to capitalize on their many voters’ dislike of the 2016 Democratic nominee,” said Travis Ridout, the Media Project’s other co-director.

Democrats have barely mentioned House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPelosi, Schumer: Trump 'desperate' to put focus on immigration, not health care Trump urges Dems to help craft new immigration laws: ‘Chuck & Nancy, call me!' Sanders, Harris set to criss-cross Iowa MORE (R-Wis.), who, while viewed more unfavorably than Pelosi, is far from the partisan boogeyman that Trump represents. Only one advertisement, aired a single time, has mentioned Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellEx-lawmaker urges Americans to publicly confront officials Manchin wrestles with progressive backlash in West Virginia Democrats slide in battle for Senate MORE (R-Ky.).