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We asked 2 political strategists to review midterm ads. Here's what they told us

Screenshots of political ads running on YouTube for midterm Senate candidates Tim Ryan (left) and Mehmet Oz.
Screenshots of political ads running on YouTube for midterm Senate candidates Tim Ryan (left) and Mehmet Oz.

Election season is upon us, and if you spend any time scrolling through social media, listening to the radio or watching TV, you're probably getting a barrage of political ads.

Unprecedented political ad spending is estimated at nearly $10 billion this election cycle, surpassing even the 2020 presidential election.

While the may phrase "this is the most important election of your lifetime" may feel like a cliché at this point, ad spending shows that campaigns and major parties are feeling that sentiment.

We asked two veteran political strategists to analyze an ad from their party, and why they think it works.

We also dig into what's at stake this election cycle — more on that further down. But first, the ads.

Tim Ryan — Democratic candidate for Ohio senate

Analysis by Democratic strategist Joel Payne

I think one of the reasons [it works] is because he is appealing not just to his base, but he's appealing to voters in the middle, to independents. And I think this ad is a great example of that.

This is not a base turnout ad, it is an advertisement to say, "Hey, if you're someone who doesn't agree with me, it's safe to support me. Even when we disagree, we can do it without being disagreeable."

He's using his family to demonstrate a very common disagreement you might have around the home.

It's a really effective spot because I think for a lot of voters who may not know who Tim Ryan is, I think it portrays him in a positive, reasonable light.

There are other ads that might be kind of considered more turnout ads that are just going to be to juice your base and to get them excited. This is not, this is an ad that is much more of a persuasion biographical piece.

Mehmet Oz — Republican candidate for Pennsylvania senate

Analysis by Republican strategist Alice Stewart

The thinking by the Oz campaign is that crime is through the roof in parts of Pennsylvania, specifically in the Philly suburbs, and people are concerned about who is going to represent them and really be tough on crime.

And Oz is accurately depicting [John Fetterman's - his Democratic opponent] record on the [Board of Pardons] at letting off convicted murderers, and it's a valid and accurate contrast on how they will handle crime.

He also touches on reducing taxes and the economic issues that are really impacting people across the state of Pennsylvania.

So he was not only just talking policy points and what Oz plans to do, he was able to point to specifics in Fetterman's record that he views as a direction that the people of Pennsylvania don't want to go in.

And I think it's a extremely impactful closing ad as we get to the end of the election cycle. And based on what the polling numbers show, crime and the economy are our top issues for people in Pennsylvania.

What they say is at stake this election cycle

The fight for control of Congress is one of the major factors driving ad dollars.

Currently, Democrats hold a narrow majority in the House, and the Senate is split at an even 50/50, with Vice President Kamala Harris holding a tie breaking vote.

"Obviously, Democrats are fighting with everything they can to hold on to that position," Stewart told NPR.

"Republicans look at this as an opportunity to put a check and balance on what they see as the very liberal, very progressive policies of the Biden administration ... so any money spent now to change the trajectory and the direction of this country is money well spent."

Stewart said the polls she is watching show the issues that matter most to voters are inflation, economy, crime, and immigration.

Payne agreed the economy is a top priority, but added other issues were also motivating voters.

"They're also talking about things like abortion rights ... [and] democracy issues — January 6, voting rights, issues of preserving democracy. Those are on the minds of Democratic voters," he said.

Television versus digital

In the world of political advertising, TV remains king, accounting for about 51% of the ad dollars spent this cycle.

And while many consider it as tried and true, the methodology behind TV ads has evolved over time.

"I think with regards to TV, it is changing," Payne said, adding that advances in analytics technology has allowed for more sophisticated targeting. "There is a real science to it, and a real art to it. And it's a lot more precise than it used to be."

Yet while TV ads remain the most prevalent, campaigns are certainly not ignoring other platforms to get their message out, especially when it comes to younger voters.

"We're also seeing tens of millions of dollars on social media ads, and Google ads and Facebook," Stewart said. "Campaigns recognize the fact that the younger generation is not watching television and certainly not watching commercials when they come on."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 23, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
In an earlier version of this story, Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman was mistakenly identified as having served on a state parole board. Fetterman chaired the Board of Pardons.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.

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