Character and the Campaign
What Are The Master Narratives about the Candidates in 2004 and How Is The Public Reacting To Them?
The Advertising Campaign
While news coverage of the campaign gradually became so focused on news events that the major narrative themes about the candidates were often missing, that is not the case with the campaign ads.
In their carefully constructed "paid media" messages, the candidates leaned hard on the themes about themselves--and each other--that we were studying. Overall, more than half the ads hit on the major character themes. The rest tended to deal more specifically with policy issues.
We looked at the ads the campaigns ran, according to their own websites, in the period between mid-February and the first week of June. In this period each campaign produced the same number of TV ads, 16.
Five of Bush's ads hammered the idea that Kerry was liberal. Another three suggested Kerry was a flip flopper. Three projected the positive image about the President that he is a strong leader.
Kerry's ads generally tended to be somewhat more positive. Six of them projected the message that Kerry is a tough guy who won't back down from a fight. Another three drove in the negative theme that President Bush lacks credibility.
Issues were often the evidence or material used to press the case, particularly Kerry's Senate voting record and Bush's utterances about the war.
There has been an extraordinary amount of money spent by the two campaigns. The ad wars also began early. The analysis shows the ads are having a statistically significant impact on voter perceptions of the candidates for only two of the major character themes. And they seem to be working to Bush's advantage.
The more Bush ads people have seen, the more likely they are to agree that Kerry flip flops and that Bush is strong and decisive.
In the critical battleground states, only the message that Bush is strong and decisive can be said statistically to be making a difference.
In the non-battleground states, people who see more Bush ads are more likely to agree with theme that Kerry flip flops.
The Bush Campaign
The initial ads the Bush campaign aired built up the President's image as a strong leader. Two of these three ads spoke directly to this image in the context of Bush's response to September 11th.
Eight days later, the ad campaign turned negative. In the next thirteen spots, the number of negative ads Bush produced outnumbered the positive ads 10 to 3.
While Bush started with Kerry is a liberal, the impression that seems to have stuck is that Kerry is a flip flopper.
Notably, the Bush campaign used Kerry's own words against him in a way that journalists analyzing the ads considered particularly effective.
The Kerry Campaign
The Kerry campaign's ad strategy has been the reverse image of the Bush campaign. Kerry began negative. The theme of "Bush lacks credibility" appeared in three of the six ads that were produced from February 14 through April 5.
From there on Kerry's attacks seemed to be more policy specific, and Kerry's own positive biography began to creep more and more into the ads. On May 3, the Kerry campaign released two biographic ads aimed at introducing Kerry to voters, focusing intently on his military service.
Indeed, Kerry's positive message, that he is a "fighter," was the most common character theme in his ads, appearing in 6 out of the 16 we examined.
In the survey data, Kerry's "military service" came up as the number one favorable trait respondents gave about the candidate in open-ended questioning-mentioned 11% of the time. But when voters were asked to affix the phrase "He is personally tough and doesn't give up in the face of adversity" to a candidate, they assigned it to Bush 53% of the time, compared to only 15% for Kerry.