Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign ran television advertisements more "devoid of policy discussions" than any presidential candidate since at least the year 2000, according to a new study published Monday.
The study, conducted by the Wesleyan Media Project, examined political advertising during the 2016 election. Among other conclusions, it found that only 25 percent of Clinton's ads focused on policy, while over 60 percent were personal, or as the study described, "solely about candidate characteristics."
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Clinton is the only presidential candidate since at least the 2000 campaign, from either political party, to devote less than 40 percent of her television ads to focus on policy.
"In a typical campaign, ads that focus on candidate character have comprised less than 20 percent of total ad airings, and in some years like 2000, there were hardly any ads that focused on the candidates' character," the study stated.
In comparison, over 70 percent of Donald Trump's television ads "contained at least some discussion of policy."
"The majority of the Clinton campaign's negative advertising attacked Trump’s characteristics and personality," the study found, noting that "fewer than 10 percent of ads attacking Trump focused on his policies whereas about 90 percent was focused on Trump as an individual."
The study's findings appear to go against the Clinton campaign's narrative that she was a policy wonk who would focus on the issues. There were numerous news articles written during the 2016 campaign that described Clinton as a wonk who center her campaign on policy rather than personal attacks.
- Washington Post: Clinton Goes Full Policy Wonk to Draw Contrast With Trump's ‘Reckless Ideas'
- Politico: Wonk Warrior: Inside the Relaunch of Hillary Clinton
- NPR: Clinton Runs as Wonk in Chief, Trying to Win Hearts With Plans
- New York Times: Clinton's Effective Wonk Strategy
The Wesleyan study, which was flagged Wednesday by Vox, concluded that Clinton's advertisement strategy may have backfired on her.
Evidence suggests that negativity in advertising can have a backlash effect on the sponsor (Pinkleton 1997) and that personally-focused, trait-based negative messages (especially those that are uncivil) tend to be seen as less fair, less informative, and less important than more substantive, policy-based messaging (Fridkin and Geer 1994; Brooks and Geer 2007).
In stark contrast to any prior presidential cycle for which we have Kantar Media/CMAG data, the Clinton campaign overwhelmingly chose to focus on Trump's personality and fitness for office (in a sense, doubling down on the news media's focus), leaving very little room for discussion in advertising of the reasons why Clinton herself was the better choice.
Trump, on the other hand, provided explicit policy-based contrasts, highlighting his strengths and Clinton's weaknesses, a strategy that research suggests voters find helpful in decision-making. These strategic differences may have meant that Clinton was more prone to voter backlash and did nothing to overcome the media's lack of focus on Clinton's policy knowledge, especially for residents of Michigan and Wisconsin, in particular, who were receiving policy-based (and specifically economically-focused) messaging from Trump.
In traditionally blue states like Michigan and Wisconsin that Clinton lost, her campaign did not devote significant resources until the last week of the election. The Clinton team spent almost no money in Michigan and Wisconsin throughout the campaign. It was only in the final days of the election that the campaign began focusing on those states.
Clinton was the first major-party presidential nominee to not campaign in Wisconsin since 1972.