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2022 Campaign Advertising Highlights: Understanding Themes in Limited Messaging on Climate Change and Critical Race Theory

By Steven Moore

Democrats and Republicans do not agree on much when it comes to politics. However, there does seem to be agreement from members of both parties that the country is on the wrong track, with a slim and broad majority of Democrats and Republicans, respectively, endorsing this idea.

That said, there are some clear partisan differences in the issues that are thought to be the source of this discontentment. This is illustrated in the way Republicans communicate in ads mentioning critical race theory, and in the way Democrats communicate in ads discussing climate change.

It’s important to note that neither of these issues are attracting much attention, appearing in a relatively small portion of the ads that have aired to this point, and paling in comparison to hot button issues such as abortion and inflation. This is notable because many have argued that critical race theory played a large role in recent special elections, particularly the Virginia gubernatorial race in 2021. There’s also reason to believe climate change might feature more prominently in messaging since it is quite likely to be listed as an issue of concern that is important to their potential vote choice of average Americans. The same is not true for critical race theory which has not stuck with many voters as a key issue of concern. Intriguingly, despite the fact that many more Americans worry over the effects of climate change, the ads on critical race theory are relatively more likely to present that issue as an existential threat to our way of life.

It’s important to note that critical race theory is a relatively esoteric set of legal theories that has not gained much traction outside the academy; very little of this work has made its way into K-12 schools. And yet the specter of this philosophy looms large in Republican ads and has been described as harmful to White Americans specifically. Republican ads have consistently paired critical race theory with border security and other issues that they claim threaten the American way of life. 

Ads discussing critical race theory provide a few examples of what they mean by this term, focusing on schools and educational practices centering anti-racism, but also mentioning implicit bias training in non-educational settings. With regards to education, several ads criticize federal government intervention in local education policy, specifically decrying liberal indoctrination and the common core standards. This framing is quite similar in tenor and tone to the language used to oppose to racial integration of schools in the 1960’s, which consistently decried federal intrusion in state affairs, and suggested the impetus for desegregation was radical leftism

The ads focus on the degree to which these practices cause harm by decreasing patriotism and offering a negative view of the country and White Americans specifically. One common theme in several of the ads is a linkage of critical race theory and protest activity, particularly the defund the police movement. In order to make this connection, a number of ads specifically show darkened images of protests while decrying the influence of critical race theory. Screenshots from these ads included below illustrate this.

Figure 1: Screenshots from television advertising mentioning Critical Race Theory 
Sponsored by School Freedom Fund (top left), Florida Trust (top right), Republican Jen Kiggans (bottom).

Though similar in number, ads mentioning climate change tell a very different story. While only Republicans running for office have run ads focused on critical race theory, mentions of climate change have come from both Democrats and Republican candidates. There are clear partisan differences in the frames employed but neither party emphasizes threat in the same manner seen in ads on critical race theory. While there are some that emphasize the potential disastrous consequences of climate change, a larger number of these ads are claiming credit for the recent legislation addressing climate that has passed under the Biden administration.

There are some Democratic ads that bring up the potential harms posed by climate change, and others that bring in footage of extreme weather events. But Democrats do not seem to be consistently emphasizing the existential stakes of the climate crisis, or attempting specifically to motivate fear in their discussions of this issue. This contrasts with Republican coverage of critical race theory – which as noted above explicitly use fear appeals –, but does seem to mirror the Republican coverage of climate change. The few Republican ads on this seem to call out politicians for supporting the climate legislation that they claim supports wasteful spending. 

Figure 2: Screenshots from television advertising mentioning Climate Change Policies
Sponsored by Becca Balint (left), NRSC (right).

Despite their low volume overall, the specific approaches used to highlight the two key issues discussed here, climate change and critical race theory, are particularly interesting and say much about the priorities of the parties. Again, there is considerable evidence that climate change poses a real and measurable threat, which has been linked to many deadly events across the country in recent years, and worries many Americans. And yet, the way these issues are presented in advertising seems to suggest that critical race theory poses more of a threat. 

Especially in the wake of one of the largest protest movements in the history of this country, focused on racial justice and ending police violence against Black Americans, it’s worth digging deeper into how attacks on CRT became the highest profile discussion on this issue in campaign ads. And Democrats need not mimic the crisis framing of Republicans on CRT when discussing climate change, there is a lot of reason to believe that these types of appeals can be paralyzing and demobilizing for much of the public. For this reason, the emphasis on this framing by some in the GOP seems to have been unsuccessful in pushing the public to view the issue in the same way, and may have contributed to their relative underperformance in 2022. And as the 2024 primary process starts to heat up and GOP candidates and hopefuls begin positioning themselves on critical race theory, this specific pattern could repeat itself.

The COMM team includes members of the Wesleyan Media Project (WMP). Since the 2010 election cycle, WMP has been providing real-time information on the extent of corporate and union spending in federal election campaigns across the country, who specifically is doing that spending and which candidates are benefiting. In the Fall of 2022, the COMM team will be providing periodic commentaries about the ways in which discourse in political ads is relevant to health equity.

This post was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (Grant no. 79754). The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation.

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