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How Political Candidates Discussed Racial and Gender Identity in 2022 – and What it Means for 2024

The political discourse surrounding identity is particularly heated in early 2024, as the United States lurches toward another momentous election. Between news coverage of ongoing political attacks on college campuses and corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion issues; persistent attention to the roles of antisemitism and Islamophobia inflaming domestic tensions surrounding the Middle East war; and the continued repercussions of abortion restrictions across states, issues of identity loom large. And, these issues–and how the political candidates position themselves in this context–will likely shape voters’ decisions in the ballot box this fall. 

Issues related to identity are, of course, not new to politics—they come up in virtually all elections. In a recently-published paper, members of the COMM team sought to examine how candidates for federal offices discussed issues of racial and gender identity in the last major election cycle—the 2022 midterm campaign. The COMM team examined political advertisements aired on local broadcast television, national network, and national cable. We categorized pro-Republican and pro-Democrat advertisements for federal races based on how they talked about specifically-selected keywords and policy issues related to race or gender. Our team analyzed approximately 2,741 total ads, aired 1,637,031 times, through both manual coding of ads and computational keyword analyses. Unsurprisingly, the results reveal a politically polarized landscape surrounding race and gender in the United States, though the nature of that polarization was surprising at times, as discussed further below.    

Figure 1: Geographic Patterns to Race and Gender-Related Issues in Federal Advertising

Source: Authors’ analysis of Wesleyan Media Project issue classifications of Vivvix CMAG data

Specifically, we saw stark differences in how Republicans and Democrats discussed gender and racial issues in the 2022 political campaign. Democrats dominated conversations about women’s issues, mainly through their continued discussion of abortion rights. One-third of all pro-Democratic airings discussed abortion, a whopping 300,000 ads aired overall. Republicans, by contrast, rarely mentioned gender or advertising and when they did, the content focused heavily on concerns around gender-neutral bathrooms in schools and transgender issues with respect to sports.

Figure 2: Screenshots from Television Advertising Mentioning Gender 
Sponsored by Republican Paul Junge (top left), Frontiers of Freedom Action (top right), House Majority PAC (bottom left), Democrat Jay Chen (bottom right).

The volume of attention to racial issues was less lopsided, and, perhaps surprisingly, to the extent that one party discussed race more often, it was Republicans. However, the racial discourse in pro-Republican ads featured racially-stereotypical constructs of crime, punishment, public safety, and immigration – issues that stoke fear and often, bias. For example, a total of 270,000 ads aired referenced crime – which amounted to 16% of all ads that aired during the general election period.  More than one in five (23%) of pro-Republican airings mentioned crime compared to 11% of pro-Democratic airings. In addition, while racial inequality has traditionally been thought of as an issue Democrats discuss, overt references to racial justice were exceedingly rare: in less than 1% of airings overall, and within Democrats, only 0.8%.

Figure 3: Screenshots from Television Advertising Mentioning Crime or Police 
Sponsored by Senate Leadership Fund (top left), Republican Van Orden (top right), Democrat Mandela Barnes (bottom left), Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto (bottom right).

These patterns suggest a coordinated and strategic effort by Democrats to dominate discussions of women’s health and shy away from discussions of racial justice. In the paper, we add to prior evidence that there is little discussion in campaign advertising that would equip the public to understand issues of systemic racism and its influence on health or other social outcomes – issues that have become even more weaponized in public discourse in 2024. And this is true even of Democratic advertising where we might expect to find some explicit discussion of it. In contrast, the campaign discourse from Republicans – if it continues to follow the patterns identified in 2022 – could feed opposition to movements for racial justice, by making negative stereotypical imagery of race more salient.

Amid media attention to and polling evidence that Biden has lost some ground among Black voters, it is noteworthy that the Biden campaign started airing advertising in South Carolina that explicitly features members of the Black community and calls out policies that have explicitly helped Black children and Black businesses. Whether the focus of pro-Democratic advertising in 2024 will retain more of this language, however, is an open question and something to watch.

Read more relevant work from the COMM team:

The journal article discussed here is published as an advance view “Early Publication”. The final release of the issue will be in late May. Support for this research was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (grant #79754). The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.

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