What Candidates Are Talking About in Online Ads

Both Democrats and Republicans have a lot to say about the economy and President Trump—but only one party is emphasizing health care.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Sometimes it seems like Democrats and Republicans aren’t even speaking the same language. But when it comes to online advertising, there are some surprising similarities between the big topics for both parties.

The topic mentioned most often in Democratic ads on Google, according to an Atlantic analysis, is health care—which lags well down among the Republican topics. But the next two leading Democratic subjects are economic issues and President Donald Trump, similar to the Republican results. The figures are derived from an analysis of Google’s “Transparency Report,” which collects advertisements run on Google Ad Services, the largest online advertising platform. The numbers cover any actor who has spent at least $500 on ads, including candidate campaigns, party political-action committees, and independent advocacy groups.

The Democratic focus on health care, at roughly a quarter of ads run, is not surprising. As Annie Lowrey reports, the party has found health care to be a potent issue in the midterm elections, pointing to numerous Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Notably, a significant share of the ads about health care focus on preexisting conditions, a reference to Obamacare’s most popular provision. Despite their claims to the contrary, Republicans have sought to eliminate the measure, which guarantees that people with preexisting conditions can obtain insurance.

The next two issues, the economy and Trump, are a little more unexpected. Although Democrats are quick to note that economic gains are not widely distributed, most standard indicators point to a strong economy, from stock-market gains to job growth to wage increases. Traditionally, a strong economy favors the party that controls Congress and the White House. But Republicans have struggled to turn that good fortune into an effective messaging tool, and Democrats are running on the issue as well.

It’s the focus on Trump that’s most interesting. Sixteen percent of Democratic Google ads mention Trump, barely lower than the 20 percent of GOP ads that do. As NBC News reported, based on a Wesleyan University analysis of broadcast spots, Trump was surprisingly absent from Democratic ads on TV from mid-September to mid-October, appearing in just one in 10. (What’s more, only half of those were negative.) Online, it’s a different story, with Trump emerging as a major theme.

Given that Republicans are on the defensive on health care, and that Obamacare has grown more popular as it’s been on the chopping block, it stands to reason that it would be a more minor topic in GOP-placed ads—appearing in just 7 percent of them.

Republicans are seeking to capitalize on the positive economic news. Far and away the biggest economic topic is taxes. Late last year, the Republican-led Congress passed a large series of tax cuts, which they hoped would give the party a boost in the midterms. But those cuts have proven unpopular with voters.

The reasons for that are complicated. But surely one reason that the economy isn’t lifting Republicans as much as they’d like is the next biggest subject of ads: Donald Trump. The president remains unpopular and divisive, and Republican candidates for office have had to wrestle with how to deal with that. One option is to try to distance oneself from the president and appeal to voters turned off by him. But that’s a tactic that often comes up short—just ask the Democrats who tried to keep former President Barack Obama at arm’s length in 2010 and found themselves jobless. The second option is to embrace the president and hope that enthusiasm among Trump fans balances out the disadvantages.

What’s missing from advertising can be as telling as what’s there. Just 10 percent of Google ads from Republicans deal with immigration, even though Trump has tried to make it the focus of the campaign in the closing weeks. Republican candidates and their allies seem less eager to embrace that debate, perhaps reflecting the reality that Trump’s immigration views are not widely shared.