By the end of this thing, the money spent on the 18th congressional district special election will almost certainly rival the GDPs of some developing nations. That’s thanks in no small part to a howitzer assault of television ads currently streaming across the airwaves here.
The ads — and their frequencies — make one thing crystal clear: Republicans are desperate to retain the seat vacated by former congressman Tim Murphy last year in a hail of scandal and willing to spend bigly in the process. Meanwhile, Democrats are desperate to pull the seat out from under them — but you already knew that.
Less obvious, maybe, is what these ads are doing, how they’re doing it and what they say about the candidates — Conor Lamb, a Democrat, former federal prosecutor, Marine Corps veteran and member of a politically prominent Pittsburgh family, and Rick Saccone, an Air Force veteran, firebrand Republican state representative and self-proclaimed precursor to President Donald Trump — and their respective ends of the electorate.
So we asked the experts about the themes they detect, what the ads are trying to achieve and whether or not they think they’ll work. Here’s what they told us.
‘Nancy had a little Lamb’
The pro-Saccone ads contain a multitude of personalities, most of them machismo-laden.
There’s the tough-on-terror Rick Saccone; The tough-on-North-Korea Rick Saccone; The firewall-against-the-liberal-agenda Rick Saccone and a more bipartisan portrayal of the candidate thrown in for good measure.
Beyond that, the Democrats — and two in particular — are a prevalent focus of the GOP’s ads in this race.
There are entire ad spots linking Lamb to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a frequent target of Trump and a favored villain among his base, in the most overt terms possible.
“He’s trying to make Lamb the liberal while he appeals to the Trump working class voters,” said G. Terry Madonna — director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster — of the Saccone ad campaign’s leitmotif.
In other words, Saccone sees his ultraconservative track record as an asset in the 18th and Lamb’s Democratic affiliation as a flaw to be seized upon.
Sandi DiMola, an associate professor of political science at Carlow University, added of the undertones, “Saccone’s ads are […] trying to showcase distinction between the parties, e.g., the ‘Nancy had a little lamb’ ad highlights that Saccone would never vote with the Democrats. The ‘built American tough’ tagline sounds very much like ‘Make America Great Again.’ I think Saccone is trying to play to the base that wants a Republican to be a Republican and not a collaborator.”
The overriding take away from the ad buys on Saccone’s behalf is that he will be a staunch and unflinching defender of conservative principles, and Lamb is a Democratic Party hack.
While there is at least one ad touting Saccone’s bipartisan legislative achievements in the state House, it feels like a footnote.
In deciphering this strategy, it’s important to note that Trump won the almost exclusively white, traditionally Republican 18th congressional district in the 2016 presidential election by a wide margin on a nearly identical platform, so Saccone’s embrace of Trumpian thematics makes perfect sense here. (For the record: Saccone would argue that he patented those thematics first and that Trump actually borrowed them from him.)
But the pace of the GOP’s investment in the race reveals an uncertainty about its outcome, or at least an unwillingness to leave anything to chance.
DiMola explained by email, “Saccone’s strategy makes sense if you consider that the Republican party sees a need to invest money (e.g. Paul Ryan’s PAC has contributed money to Saccone’s campaign) and time (e.g. Trump stumped for him in person and on Twitter) in what has been a solidly Republican district — one in which Trump won by 20 percentage points.”
The law-and-order Democrat
For the most part, Lamb’s ads aim to strike a different chord.
A number feature his military and law enforcement backgrounds prominently. Almost all paint him as a moderate political force. There is one obligatory spot depicting his opponent as an advocate for special interests who would “only make Washington worse,” but most focus on Lamb as political peacemaker and the yin to Saccone’s fiery yang.
“Lamb’s ads all seem to stress his willingness to end the partisan divide and end gridlock in Congress,” DiMola said. “This seems like a good approach because although the district is solidly Republican and Murphy ran unopposed in his last 2 re-election bids, there are more registered Democrats in the 18th than registered Republicans. So, either the Republicans turn out to vote more regularly or people are not voting along party lines.”
Lamb’s campaign is clearly aware of this dynamic, stressing in advertisements and elsewhere Lamb’s military background, his love of guns and the Second Amendment and his law enforcement bona fides — themes usually associated with Republican candidates.
Additionally, ads for both campaigns reflect more than just the 18th district’s political makeup.
“I’m not seeing a lot of diversity in terms of the people or everyday citizens in the ads, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when talking about Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district,” said Kristen Allen, an assistant professor with Duquesne University’s Department of Political Science.
“If you’re trying to attract a typical Trump voter, you don’t want to be filling the ad with minorities, and Saccone doesn’t want to be filling his with a bunch of minority voters.”
Are the ads unusual?
The special election itself is somewhat unusual.
Both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have visited the 18 district — or at least its vicinity — in recent weeks in a sign that this election looms large not just regionally but also nationally. This after the Republican Party suffered a stinging special election defeat in Alabama in December and as both parties look to snag momentum headed into the 2018 midterms.
According to Mother Jones, the Democratic Party has taken a somewhat more subdued approach to the 18th than was seen in special elections like last year’s in Georgia’s 6th congressional district. Mother Jones attributes this to “the growth of local progressive organizing of the last eight months, as well as the increasingly cluttered electoral calendar.”
The ads, though? Not very unusual. In fact, Allen said they’re pretty typical.
The themes are largely as expected: Saccone touts his conservative credentials and links Lamb with Democratic Party leaders who are reviled by your average conservative voter. (The other side of that coin involves Saccone linking himself with a White House that’s increasingly unpopular nationwide.)
“So this is just trying to associate Lamb with Democrats,” Allen said, “and if voters have a negative view of Democrats and think they are part of the problem in Washington, D.C., and that it’s not the Republicans but the Democrats who caused the shutdown and who are causing all the gridlock, then associating Lamb with Pelosi” could be harmful to his campaign.
Meanwhile, Lamb touts his as a fresh perspective and himself as a Democrat — but not a stereotypical Democrat.
So far, Lamb’s campaign commercials have tended to focus more on him than on his opponent, a move reflective of the district in which he’s running, the character he’s trying to project through his campaign and a belief that the 18th is more moderate than not.
“This seems to be the choice of strategy for his campaign and that could benefit him or backfire,” Allen added. “But I’d say they’ll probably stick with what’s working for them, and that strategy seems to be working for them. [Saccone and Lamb] don’t seem to be that far apart in polling. And I think what we’re seeing now is probably what we’ll see up until the election on March 13, at least from campaigns. I’m not sure what the DCCC or GOP will do in terms of ad buys before then.”
Lamb has taken an early fundraising lead over Saccone. According to The Hill: Lamb raised about $560,000 during the final three months of 2017, spending $148,295. Lamb began 2018 with about $412,000 in his campaign account. Saccone raised $214,675 over that same period, spending only $14,700. His campaign has about $200,000 on hand for the race.
Advertising budgets are also considerable, with outside groups investing heavily in targeted campaigns. This includes the Paul Ryan-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund, which committed to a $1.5 million television buy on Saccone’s behalf. The 45Committee, a pro-Trump super PAC supported by Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts, and the Ending Spending Action Fund super PAC have also dropped another $1.5 million on pro-Saccone ads between them. Late last month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee dropped $236,000 on a two-week flight of pro-Conor Lamb ads.
Attempts to reach both the Lamb and Saccone campaigns were unsuccessful.
DiMola added, “In November ‘Inside Elections’ did not see this race as a pivotal race — now, a little over 2 months later, Trump tweeted support for Saccone and recently made a visit to Pennsylvania. In addition, Paul Ryan’s PAC has committed a significant amount of funding for Saccone. This level of activity, in a solidly Republican district, shows how much the Republicans believe they need this win and recognize that even if Saccone wins — if this turns out to be a close race — it will be viewed as evidence of displeasure with the Trump Administration.”
Madonna added, “The outside money could make the difference,” and, “The outside money has poured into the district for Saccone.”
Which ads are more likely to sway voters?
Political advertising is more art than science.
That said, it remains to be seen which candidate’s messaging will shine through for voters come March 13.
“I think Lamb is making a bigger effort to attract – or at least not to put off the Republican base in this district,” DiMola said. “I think Lamb is taking a gamble that since the district is principally white, wealthy, and older, there are more ‘moderate’ Republicans and middle-of-the-road Democrats and those are the groups to whom I think his ads are trying to appeal.”
Lamb has also sought to preemptively cast off linkages between him and Pelosi, saying he wouldn’t vote for her to lead House Democrats and disagreed with Democratic Party leaders that lined up against efforts to end the government shutdown.
Whether that will rise above Saccone’s constant barrage of advertisements saying otherwise is unclear.
“It would all depend on who’s hearing his statement,” Allen said. “The Saccone ads [connecting Lamb to Pelosi] are going to be much more effective for the people seeing them.”
She continued: “People like positive ads. We like seeing happy ads, and we like seeing ads that talk about the candidates and what they’re going to do for us. We like to see the candidates hugging veterans and kissing babies, and we don’t like negative ads. But negative ads are more effective because they give us info that sticks with us, research has shown this. […] We don’t like seeing them and will mute our TVs during dinner or change the channel, but one reason they stick around, as much as voters might despise them, is because for candidates, they do provide benefits.”
And so, ad blitzes from both parties will continue — DVRs be warned.