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Campaigns are spending record amounts on political advertising, but will it work?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Election season is upon us. Early voting is underway in several places around the country. And if you spend any time scrolling through social media, listening to the radio or watching TV, you're probably hearing and seeing a whole lot of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Crime is a bigger problem than ever.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: A crisis of human trafficking, crime and lethal opioids.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A ban on abortions.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Inflation has gotten out of control.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: And I approve this message.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: And I approve this message.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: And I approve this message.

CHANG: A barrage of political ads as campaigns in the major parties drop a lot of money to turn out voters. Well, we wanted to get an idea of what campaigns are saying and how they're saying it. And here to walk us through that is Republican political strategist Alice Stewart. She's worked on many Republican presidential campaigns, including the ones for Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee. And we have Democratic political strategist Joel Payne. He worked on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and has also worked for Democratic members of Congress. Welcome to both of you.

ALICE STEWART: Hi, Ailsa. Great to be with you.

JOEL PAYNE: Thanks so much for having me.

CHANG: So I want to start by talking about just the extraordinary amount of money being poured into ads this season. I've seen numbers of almost - what? - $10 billion being spent this cycle, which is more than even the 2020 presidential election, right? Alice, can you just talk about what is driving all this tremendous spending this year?

STEWART: As we hear every cycle and every campaign and every election, this is a very consequential election for several reasons. The 50-50 split in the Senate and over in the House, it looks as though Republicans have the opportunity to pick up seats to take control of the House. And 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 that they see are not working.

CHANG: OK. And, Joel, can you tell us more about, like, what is at stake in your mind for Democrats this cycle?

PAYNE: You know, I think Alice makes some really good points there about just the stakes that are on every election, really, right? Every appeal is this is the most important election of your lifetime. I also think there's a premium on reaching the voters that really make the difference. And, you know, not to get into the business of advertising, but TV stations and websites that are the places where you can reach these voters, they understand that it gets more and more expensive. Also, it depends on where you're talking about. Reaching a voter in the middle of Ohio costs different, is different than reaching someone, say, in Florida or in California.

CHANG: Right.

PAYNE: It's more expensive based on metropolitan areas and also the number of voters, the density of voters and how crowded the media space is.

CHANG: All right. Well, in terms of reaching voters on salient issues, let's do a lightning round for the both of you. Like, what are, in your mind, the top three election issues for Republicans and the top three for Democrats? Alice, you go first.

STEWART: Clearly, you look at the polls, and you talk to the voters. When it comes to Republicans, the economy and inflation are the top issues for voters, followed closely by crime and public safety for Republican voters.

CHANG: Joel?

PAYNE: Well, you know, I think if you look actually at the president's actions this week, there's two of them that he's referring to, which is the economy - you look at the news about the Strategic Petroleum Reserve - and then also the issue of abortion. The president's going to be announcing that the next session of Congress, that's going to be the first issue he puts forward. I'll put a third in there as democracy issues - January 6, issues of preserving democracy. Those are on the minds of Democratic voters.

CHANG: OK. Well, we asked each of you to pick a political ad that you think is good. And we're going to play a little bit for everyone. Here is the one that Joel picked.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

TIM RYAN: If we have 10 conversations in one day...

ANDREA ZETTS: ...And we agree on seven...

RYAN: ...We crack a bottle of wine.

ZETTS: Yes, we do.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORK POPPING)

RYAN: The same goes for the country. We have to stop the stupid fights...

ZETTS: ...To find some common ground...

RYAN: ...And be Americans first.

CHANG: OK. That is from the Senate race in Ohio. It's an ad for Democrat Tim Ryan, who is running against Republican J.D. Vance, a candidate who was backed by former President Trump. And, Joel, what do you think works about this ad?

PAYNE: Well, so a couple of things. One of the reasons 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, even when we disagree, we can do it without being disagreeable. He's using his family to demonstrate the very common disagreement you might have around the home. It's a really effective spot because I think it also, for a lot of voters who may not know who Tim Ryan is, I think it portrays him in a positive, reasonable light.

CHANG: OK. And, Alice, you picked an ad from Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Republican running against Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman for a Senate seat in Pennsylvania. Let's hear a little bit from that ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

MEHMET OZ: Guys like John Fetterman take everything to the extreme. Why are we letting murderers out? Why is the solution always tax and spend? Extremism on both sides makes things worse. We need balance, less extremism in Washington.

CHANG: OK. So, Alice, explain what you think the thinking is behind this ad.

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. 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 I think it's an 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 top issues for people in Pennsylvania.

CHANG: But can I just flag, like, what's an interesting difference in strategy, at least the strategy that these two ads represent? Tim Ryan seems to be calling for unity. He seems to be going for the middle, if you will, as Joel, you know, was explaining earlier. And Mehmet Oz is kind of trying to stoke a little fear here - right? - by talking about crime. We hear a lot that voters don't like negative ads, but what do you think actually stays with people? Alice, you go first.

STEWART: Every campaign and every candidate will say they don't want to do negative ads. But when they feel as though it will help sway undecided voters, they will certainly do it. And I truly don't view the Oz ad as negative. I view it as showing the strong contrast, and it's factually accurate in terms of pointing out Fetterman's record. What I do want to note on the Tim Ryan ad, this is an excellent example of what you do in the ad wars differs from what you do on the debate stage because he has been very forceful. And it's a good stark contrast of what you can do in an ad and follow up your messaging, maybe in a different type of fierceness on the debate stage. And Ryan certainly did do that.

CHANG: What do you think, Joel?

PAYNE: I think that each ad exists in a different political atmosphere and political universe. So in Pennsylvania, the electorate looks different than in Ohio. There are more available voters to Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, I think, than there are to Tim Ryan in Ohio. Tim Ryan has to persuade more voters. He has to bring more voters in. And each state is a laboratory. It's different for each candidate. And it's different in each race.

CHANG: Yeah.

PAYNE: So the appeals are going to be different, and the circumstances are going to be different. I think reflective of maybe what Alice I chose are also the political positions of the sides that we have both spent our careers working for. Republicans are expected to take control in two weeks. And Democrats are trying to hold on to control of both houses of Congress and obviously the White House for 2024. So you're in very different political ecosystems, political universes and political realities, frankly.

CHANG: That is Democratic strategist Joel Payne. He worked on Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign and has advised Democratic members of Congress. We also had Republican strategist Alice Stewart. She's a veteran of Republican presidential campaigns. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

STEWART: Thank you, Ailsa. Thank you, Joel.

PAYNE: Thank you so much. Good to speak with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
Mallika Seshadri
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.