Today, America’s Voice is launching a new project to track xenophobic and racist ads that candidates, campaigns, and PACs are running this election cycle. We launched a similar project during the 2018 midterm elections, and, to no one’s surprise, we’re already seeing the same type of racist and hateful ads running again this year.
Our new ad-tracking website, at 2020AdWatch.com, is being launched during a particularly frightening week in the Trump Administration. A mass shooter killed twenty-two people in El Paso, Texas, specifically singling out Latinos and leaving behind an anti-immigrant manifesto railing about a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Meanwhile, Trump has not only used that same rhetoric in speeches and on Twitter, his campaign been spending millions on Facebook ads describing Hispanic migrants as an “invasion”. In the Trump era, words matter. As Philip Rucker at the Washington Post writes, “the question surrounding the president is no longer whether he will respond as other presidents once did, but whether his words contributed to the carnage.” In lifting up these ads, we hope to shine a spotlight on this pattern of hate ‒ and call out the candidates, campaigns, superPACS, and donors responsible for them.
It has become crystal clear that racism and xenophobia will be the central, animating themes of Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. Trump and GOP candidates supporting him used similar themes in 2017 and 2018, and the strategy backfired both times. That fact, however, has not stopped Trump from trying to use hate to turn out his base in 2020, even if he alienates everyone else.
Hate in campaigns did not start with Trump ‒ the famous “Willie Horton” ads aired in 1988, and candidates have been using fear as a tactic for much longer than that. And Trump’s attacks go well beyond Trump himself: this year, we have already seen hate-based, anti-immigrant ads from GOP candidates running in House, Senate, and governor’s races.
But Trump’s 2020 campaign has thrown out the dog whistle in favor of the foghorn. More than once, they have led to horrific real-world consequences: last fall, a mass shooter who killed eleven at a Pittbsurgh synagogue cited Trump rhetoric about migrant caravans. All of this hate needs to be recognized as a pattern that we cannot ignore, and called out.
Racism is a losing strategy
In 2017, candidates in Virginia and New Jersey ‒ most notably Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie ‒ ran on an anti-immigrant platform and lost dramatically. Gillespie had previously been known as a moderate, but after almost losing a Republican primary to extremist Corey Stewart, tacked hard left. He ran outrageous ads connecting immigrants to the violent MS-13 gang ‒ and polling found that voters who were exposed to his hateful tactics moved away from Gillespie and toward his Democratic rival. Around the nation, we also tracked hateful ads from candidates running for everything from House Representative to state senate to mayor to county executive. And every single one of those racist candidates lost.
In the 2018 midterms, the GOP fully embraced the Trump/Stephen Miller anti-immigrant strategy, which involved attacking immigrants as a distraction from the fact that Trump and the GOP had done nothing for most Americans while in office. Trump and pro-Trump candidates ran some 280,000 ads attacking immigrants, focusing especially on the demonization of Central American migrants and the caravans they traveled in. At one point, Trump created an ad that was too racist even for FOX News to air. But on election night, the results showed that xenophobia had backfired with voters, and Democrats notched their largest victory since Watergate. Infamously anti-immigrant candidates like Kansas’ Kris Kobach, Virginia’s Corey Stewart, Pennsylvania’s Lou Barletta, and California’s Dana Rohrabacher all lost.
Polling throughout 2019 has further shown the deterioration of racism as a viable political strategy. In May 2019, Priorities USA found that xenophobia repels more voters than it attracts in swing states. A poll by FOX News in July found that Trump’s reliance on racism and xenophobia was not working to win him new supporters. Analysis by Ron Brownstein at the Atlantic and Greg Sargent at the Washington Post both concluded that Trump’s racism is moving white working-class women away. Eugene Robinson and Greg Sargent have written that Trump’s naked racism is the result of electoral fears by the President and not a winning strategy.
Yet Trump, perhaps led by failure strategist Stephen Miller, continues to lean into xenophobia and racism, and GOP candidates continue to follow his lead. Through our ad-tracking, we will be putting them ‒ and their backers, and their donors ‒ on blast, while continuing to make it clear that hate is not a successful political approach.
Methodology: what ads are we tracking?
We are tracking Presidential, Senate, House, and gubernatorial campaign ads that contain anti-immigrant or racist messaging. We will also be keeping an eye on local elections and relevant ballot measures. And we will be taking note of the superPACs, committees, and donors helping to disseminate these ads.
Using the tools provided by Facebook and Google, we are tracking all of the xenophobic and racist political ads that campaigns publish through those platforms. We are also monitoring more traditional spaces such as TV, radio, and newspapers. If you see an ad you think should be included in our database, you can report it here.