Which of the two presidential campaigns offered voters more substance on policy in 2016? A new study’s results will likely shock some political analysts and certainly some Democrats as well. The Wesleyan Media Project analyzed the advertising and media coverage of the two candidates, and concludes that Hillary Clinton ran an inept campaign that did just about everything it could possibly do to lose. In fact, as this graph shows, Hillary offered the lowest amount of policy substance in campaign advertising in any major-party presidential campaign this century — by far:
Some of the “personal” category in advertising would include Hillary’s biographical ads emphasizing her status as the first woman nominated to the presidency. Most of it focused on Donald Trump’s personal shortcomings and outrageous public statements, though, and that accounted for the bulk of Hillary’s argument for the job. What makes this strategy all the more puzzling is that Team Hillary dumped hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising, which should have given them plenty of range to diversify the message and focus more on Hillary’s claims of policy mastery rather than her gender and Trump’s excesses.
Even when employing contrast messaging, Team Hillary almost never bothered with policy. However, Team Trump used their more limited level of advertising to hammer on issues, especially in contrast ads, as this chart shows:
The advertising tone breakdown alone, however, hides an important difference in strategy that made 2016 advertising very unusual. Namely, the majority of the Clinton campaign’s negative advertising attacked Trump’s characteristics and personality. In other words, the attack ads were personal-focused as opposed to policy-focused (Figure 8). Fewer than 10 percent of ads attacking Trump focused on his policies whereas about 90 percent was focused on Trump as an individual. Clinton’s contrast ads were similarly devoid of policy discussion. By and large, it was only in ads promoting Clinton that the campaign actually discussed policy, and those ads comprised only 30 percent of her overall mix on air. Clearly, the Clinton campaign’s strategy was to disqualify Trump based on his temperament, not on his policy positions, in ads like “Role Models” and “Mirrors” featuring Trump’s voice and children and/or young girls listening. By contrast, about 70 percent of ads from Trump and his allies that attacked Clinton contained at least some discussion of policy, and when there were contrasts drawn between the two candidates, those contrasts were almost all policy-based such as the “Two Americas” ads, which explicitly compared how Hillary Clinton’s America would differ from Donald Trump’s America.
On top of that, Team Hillary’s advertising pattern showed that the campaign took the “Blue Wall” very much for granted until the final week of the campaign, especially in Wisconsin. Not only did Hillary herself not show up in the state at all during the general election, neither did her ads until the end of October. Trump had gone up on air in September with his focus on policy and issues, and remained the only voice until Hillary bombed Wisconsin with her personal-attack ads in the final days. A similar pattern emerged in Michigan, where Trump also waited until late to start running ads. In Pennsylvania the Trump campaign managed to keep pace with Team Hillary on advertising until the last three weeks of the campaign, but for Hillary it was too late and too off-key to win the state.
The two most prominent factors in Hillary’s loss, the study concludes, was the failure to advertise in the “blue wall” states until the very end, and that her “message was devoid of policy discussions in a way not seen in the previous four presidential contests.” Those who concluded that advertising no longer matters in presidential contests, they argue, will have missed the real problem. “Message matters, and a message repeated endlessly does no good unless it resonates with a sufficient number of the right voters,” the study’s authors advise. “Team Clinton’s message that Trump was unfit for the presidency may not have been enough.” Team Hillary threw away their perceived edge on policy to get into a mudfight with Trump, whose own campaign looked remarkably similar in approach and mix to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign against John McCain.
In other words, Hillary Clinton was a terrible candidate. We already knew that much from the results of the election, no? The subtext of this, however, should make Republicans a little nervous about 2020. If this study by Wesleyan correctly deduces what happened in 2016, it also shows how vulnerable Trump might be in a re-election contests. The next Democratic nominee will have the benefit of this analysis and the obvious hindsight. Trump’s victory was hard won and razor thin, and he won’t have the benefit of running against Hillary the next time out.
Or maybe he will. After all, they’re keeping Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer in charge despite their leadership taking Democrats to their worst political standing since the 1920s. Who’s to say they won’t reach back and double down on failure?