WASHINGTON — “Donald Trump is an embarrassment,” says a Florida gubernatorial candidate in one campaign ad. “It’s time to impeach Donald Trump and remove him from office,” says a Florida congressional candidate in another. A third Sunshine State candidate knocks the president for coming to Mar-a-Lago to play golf: “Trump’s president, and we’re paying the price. Literally.”
But a leading Republican gubernatorial candidate has a different take: “Backed by the big man himself!” a narrator boasts as a photo flashes with him and Trump together. “President Trump says Ron Desantis is a ‘brilliant’ leader and ‘an absolute warrior.’ ”
A TV-viewing voter in South Florida — like those in many major media markets around the country — could legitimately claim a case of whiplash in 2018. President Trump may not be on the ballot this November, but he’s dominating the airwaves nationally, with more than a quarter of political ads mentioning him, as candidates pro and con turn the election into a referendum on the incumbent president.
From the deserts of Arizona to the suburbs in Pennsylvania, from the fields of Wisconsin to the land of Montana, the conversation, like just about everything in politics post-2015, is largely dominated by a singular force: Trump. Trump! TRUMP!!
Sitting presidents often play a prominent role in midterm elections, particularly the first one after their election. But what’s unusual this year is that both parties are aggressively and specifically citing the president as a rallying cry in their advertising.
The pattern, combined with Trump’s own increasing campaign activity, indicates the unusual extent to which the 2018 election will deliver a personal verdict on the polarizing commander in chief.
Health care? Tax cuts? A strong economy? Those crucial policy issues are often taking a back seat to appeals to raw voter emotions about the outsized personality in the Oval Office.
“You’ve got Democrats framing themselves as who will oppose Trump most effectively,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant based in Florida, whose own television has been inundated with Trump-related ads. “And you’ve got Republicans trying to be the one who most wants to have him over for a sleepover and paint his toenails.”
A major change from past elections is the willingness of candidates from a new president’s own party to embrace him, which reflects a consuming desire to tap into a fervent base that has refused to abandon Trump despite all the allegations and outrages.
“Many Republicans view that they need the Trump base in the general [election], so they’re willing to take a risk they otherwise might not take. . . . They really need that base,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, a co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which closely follows political ads.
Those in a newly elected president’s party usually brace for a backlash that typically comes in the midterm elections, causing them to keep the president at arm’s length. President Obama was a rallying cry for Republicans in 2010 and played a starring role in ads that ridiculed his health care plan or stimulus spending. As Obama’s popularity sank, almost no Democratic candidates that year ran ads tying themselves to him. The same thing played out in the 2014 elections, when Obama was mentioned negatively in most Republican ads but almost never mentioned in Democratic ads.
In 2002, mentions of the president were also lopsided, but in a manner shaped by the atypical environment following a major terrorist attack on the United States. President George W. Bush had several dozen Republican candidates to the White House, where ads were cut with them walking and talking solemnly with him at a time when Bush’s personal popularity was at its zenith and Democrats were reluctant to attack a wartime president.
Enter the most disruptive president in modern history, and historic patterns on the airwaves are scrambled.
“This is the perfect storm,” said Ken Goldstein, a professor at the University of San Francisco who has done extensive research on political advertising. “In 2002 you had pro-incumbent president ads. In 2010, it was all anti-incumbent president ads. And then this year, it’s both.”
Some issues are bubbling below the Trump tempest. Republicans are promoting a hard line on immigration or playing up the Republican-passed tax reform law. Democrats say they are fighting to preserve access to health insurance — an ironic turn, since many of them stayed quiet about Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which was unpopular for years but rose in favor after Trump and the GOP tried but failed to repeal it.
For their negative attacks, Republicans are zeroing in on Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader who has taken the place of Obama as the leading target for GOP vitriol. In some 300,000 TV ads that ran before June 4, Pelosi was featured negatively in 6.5 percent of the ads, according to an analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project. (Hillary Clinton also remains a subject of negative attacks on the airwaves. She was cast unfavorably in 5 percent of the Republican ads this year).
“But Trump is clearly far and away the biggest focus,” said Fowler, of Wesleyan.
Trump’s name or image was in almost one in four Republican ads this year, according to data through May 10 that was provided to USA Today by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. All of those mentions were positive. He had been mentioned in 27 percent of the Democratic ads, almost all in a negative light.
The only Democrat to run an ad favorable to Trump was Senator Jon Tester, who is running for reelection in a state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016.
“Washington’s a mess,” Tester says in the ad. “But that’s not stopping me from getting bills to help Montana signed into law by President Trump.” He then cites a list of 13 pieces of legislation that he has gotten passed under Trump.
Tester’s Republican rival, Matt Rosendale, features Trump in almost all of his ads.
“I’ll stand with President Trump,” he says in one, with a Trump supporter in a red “Make America Great Again” cap in the background. “We’ll get tough. And we’ll build that wall.”
While Trump is all over the TV, he is increasingly showing up in the flesh. He has campaigned in Tennessee, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, and Indiana since May, with plans to be in Florida on Tuesday. His own campaign fund and the Republican National Committee are transferring $4 million each to House and Senate committee leaders in their bid to maintain control of Congress.
All that cash will contribute to a big spike in advertising spending that is already underway. Nearly 739,000 ads with an estimated cost of over $260 million had aired in House, Senate, and gubernatorial races by May 3. That is nearly 90 percent higher than a similar period in the 2014 cycle, according to an analysis from the Wesleyan Media Project.
“There’s literally never been a president like this before who inspires such loathing from everyone outside of his base and such adoration from everyone inside of his base,” Wilson said. “He has consumed our culture and our politics. Partly because he insists on being the center of it all. And he ends up getting what he wants all the time.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.