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We Watched 100+ Democratic TV Ads So You Don’t Have To

Each election year, politicians spend more and more money on television advertising — and the issues they focus on reveal a lot about the parties. Here, senior elections analyst Nathaniel Rakich explores what Democrats’ TV ads say about their midterms strategy.


Nathaniel Rakich: In the 2020 election, $9 billion were spent on political advertising. That’s billion with a “b.” And if you live in a swing state, you probably noticed: Sometimes literally every single ad between segments of The Bachelorette was a campaign ad!

And now, data firm AdImpact is projecting that 2022 will be even more expensive: $9.7 billion — and that’s without a presidential election on the ballot!

So what kinds of messages are campaigns paying so much money to air? It depends on if they’re Democratic or Republican.. Today, let’s focus on the Democrats. Over the last few weeks, I’ve watched over a hundred Democratic political TV ads from the last few weeks. Here’s what I learned.

First, Democrats are spending a lot of time talking about abortion. As of Sept. 20, Democrats had spent an estimated $124 million on abortion-related TV ads — twice as much money as on any other issue, and nearly 20 times as much as they spent on abortion-related ads in the entire 2018 midterm cycle.

Narrator in A Stronger Nevada ad for Nevada governor: This could be the future with Joe Lombardo as governor. Joe Lombardo could take away a woman’s right to make her own personal health-care decisions. He supports letting states criminalize abortion.

Rakich: It’s no surprise that abortion is the most commonly mentioned issue in Democrats’ campaign ads. According to a recent poll from NBC News, registered voters overwhelmingly said Democrats would do a better job than Republicans dealing with the issue of abortion, the party’s biggest advantage on any issue.

And according to another poll from Politico and Morning Consult, banning abortions without exceptions is particularly unpopular, with around three-quarters of voters opposed. That comes up again and again in Democrats’ ads.

Narrator in House Majority PAC ad in Illinois’s 13th District: Regan Deering: endorsed by extremists who want to ban abortion, no exceptions — not for rape or incest.

Woman in Beto O’Rourke ad for Texas governor: Greg Abbott signed the most extreme abortion ban in the United States.

Man in O’Rourke ad: No exception for rape? No exception for incest?

Rakich: Democrats are also airing a lot of ads that call their opponents’ character into question. In fact, after abortion, they’ve spent more money on these types of ads than any other.

Narrator in DCCC ad in North Carolina’s 1st District: These are the words from North Carolina court documents filed by congressional candidate Sandy Smith’s daughter. “[My mom] pushed and shoved me, … slapped me. … [She] punched me in the face.”

Rakich: I’ve also seen a lot of ads from Democrats trying to tie their opponents to the most extreme elements of the Republican Party — especially in bluer districts, like Rhode Island’s 2nd.

Narrator in Seth Magaziner ad in Rhode Island’s 2nd District: It was an attack on America. Trump’s armed mob tried to overturn the will of the people. When Allan Fung was asked if Jan. 6 changed his opinion about Trump, Fung said no.

Fung: No.

Rakich: Over half of Americans still have an unfavorable opinion of Donald Trump, and 69 percent consider the Jan. 6 attack to be a crisis or a major problem for democracy, so Democrats are on solid ground with ads like these. But Democrats are also playing defense with their TV ads. For instance, that NBC News poll also found that Americans trust Republicans a lot more than Democrats on the issue of crime. And I noticed a lot of Democratic ads that pushed back against the idea that they were “soft on crime.”

Brad Kunkel in Christina Bohannan ad in Iowa’s 1st District: We can trust Christina to make sure Iowa’s police have the funding we need. Anyone who says different is just plain wrong.

Man in Rep. Jared Golden ad in Maine’s 2nd District: Jared’s a friend of law enforcement, and we definitely can trust him to keep our communities and families safe.

Second man in Golden ad: Jared is standing strongly against defunding the police.

Rakich: Democrats probably feel the need to air ads like these because public safety has been a major theme for Republicans this year. So now I’m gonna go watch about 100 Republican ads to bring you a video on how the GOP is spending its money. The things I do for you guys.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Anna Rothschild was FiveThirtyEight’s senior producer for video.


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