Advertising: With seven weeks still to go until Election Day, spending on non-presidential political ads this cycle has already eclipsed 2020's record, according to AdImpact, clocking in at $6.2 billion to date. That figure will only grow during the stretch run, and with several outlets publishing new stories about the messages each party is using to win over voters—as well as how both sides are hoping to counter their opponents' ceaseless attack ads—now is an ideal moment to take stock of the broader advertising picture.
To begin with, AdImpact analyzed 448 different Senate, governor, and House commercials that aired during the first 15 days of September. NBC writes that 20% mentioned abortion, the most of any topic, while inflation wasn't far behind at 16%. The analysis also says that crime was next, while guns and China followed.
However, as we've written before, Democrats are still bringing up abortion far more than Republicans. A separate AdImpact analysis for the Associated Press found that, since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, "roughly 1 in 3 television advertising dollars spent by Democrats and their allies have focused on abortion," which is more than twice as much money as the Democrats' next top issue this year, 'character.'" (Unfortunately, the article doesn't explain that latter term.) Republicans, by contrast, have been mentioning abortion less and less each month since May.
Back in mid-May, when primaries had yet to take place in most states, the GOP had run about 11,500 abortion-focused commercials, which was only slightly fewer than the 12,200 aired by the other side. Of course, those ads, aimed at wooing primary voters, bragged about Republican candidates' opposition to abortion—a stance most have now desperately sought to downplay. Just how much have things changed? In the week of Sept. 12 alone, Democrats ran 37,400 ads on abortion compared to 2,700 for Republicans―a ratio of about 14 to 1.
Republican strategists seem to acknowledge that they can't ignore abortion forever. CNN writes that an NRSC poll presentation released last week advised candidates that the message they need to get across is that "your opponent is the extremist" and "you are the compassionate reasonable person." However, the committee's next slide read, "BUT, don't let campaign become about abortion – get back to where the voters are – inflation, gas prices, energy, crime, border security, etc."
Yet so far, the GOP is still struggling to figure out a strategy to counter the Democrats' focus on reproductive rights. A recent commercial for Nevada Senate nominee Adam Laxalt tried to do what the NRSC advised with an ad that argues incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto is focusing on abortion because she didn't want to talk about how her party has "changed our lives" for the worst. The narrator continued, "In Nevada, abortion will still be legal. Abortion rights are protected under current state law."
Laxalt's spot, though, didn't actually say what his position on abortion was, nor did it note that the Senate could try to restrict or outlaw the procedure nationally. Cortez Masto, for her part, has run many ads highlighting Laxalt's opposition to abortion rights.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tried a different strategy last week with a pair of ads that deliberately misled and fearmongered about a vote Democratic Rep. Val Demings cast in favor of the Women's Health Protection Act, a bill that would protect and expand abortion rights.
The spot insisted that Demings backed "radical abortions even at the moment of birth" even though the legislation would only allow abortions later in pregnancy "when, in the good-faith medical judgment of the treating health care provider, continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient's life or health." Those ads came shortly after Demings, who is a former Orlando police chief, ran her own spot declaring, "Well I know something about fighting crime, Sen. Rubio. Rape is a crime. Incest is a crime. Abortion is not."
Of course, crime, as well as inflation, are topics Republicans are far more comfortable talking about. A Punchbowl News analysis of digital advertising notes that a full 48% of online GOP ads from the week of Sept. 10 were about policing and public safety with another 36% focused on the economy. Democrats, by contrast, only directed 18% of their digital spots towards the economy, while 11% were about crime. Abortion rights represented 35% of Democrats' internet ads—again, by far the biggest category. AdImpact's report for Politico also says the GOP's TV ads about crime have doubled over the last month and now make up 18% of the total.
Democrats have spent decades trying to counter GOP messaging caricaturing them as weak or outright hostile to public safety, and they're once again trying to get ahead of the attacks. A summer DCCC memo encouraged candidates to, in the words of CNN, "offer a clear and direct rebuttal in their public messaging and advertising; highlight specific examples of where Democrats have funneled money toward the police; and enlist at least one active or retired member of law enforcement who can validate their record on crime and public safety."
In a sign that Democrats are actually taking this advice to heart, CNN's story also notes that Republicans over the last month have outspent Democrats by a fairly small margin—$26 million to $22 million—on commercials focused on crime. Some Democrats have also made the case that the other side's refusal to deal with gun violence proves that the GOP is the threat to public safety.
Republicans are naturally continuing to focus hard on portraying Democrats as responsible for inflation, though NBC explains that the issue has been used by candidates in both parties to attack incumbents. There are considerably more vulnerable House Democrats than Republican ones, however, so Team Blue's members are the ones who mostly need to deal with these attacks.
A few Democrats have tried to address inflation head on, with Iowa Rep. Cindy Axne pledging in one spot, "I'll go anywhere to fight high prices, I'll even go up against my own party." However, the New York Times notes that some Democrats prefer to instead campaign on abortion rights, as well as the threat Republicans pose to democracy.