Why did America’s Voice start tracking racist ads?

In 2017 in Virginia’s governor’s race, Ed Gillespie, who was seen as a Republican from the business wing of the party, was pulled to the right during a contested primary with long-time xenophobe Corey Stewart. During the general election, Gillespie adopted Stewart’s anti-immigrant messages with campaign ads that invoked MS-13 as the lens to view all Latino immigrants. Gillespie also pressed the issue by attacking “sanctuary cities,” even though Virginia has no cities which would fit the right-wing definition of such a place. While some pundits – and Steve Bannon – predicted this tactic would be successful, Gillespie lost his race by a considerable margin.

In the 2018 midterms, the GOP fully embraced the Trump/Stephen Miller anti-immigrant strategy, which involved attacking immigrants as a distraction to the GOP’s failure to deliver on bringing real solutions to average Americans. 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. However, on election night, the results showed that xenophobia had backfired with voters as Democrats secured their largest victory since Watergate. Infamously anti-immigrant candidates like Kris Kobach (KA), Corey Stewart (VA), Lou Barletta (PA), and Dana Rohrabacher (CA) all lost their races.

We continued to track ads through 2019 and 2020 – and unfortunately, there was plenty of content to track. Despite bold predictions that immigration would be the reason, Donald Trump won, the race against President Biden was not a close election. 

However, it appears Republicans are indeed doubling down on this failed strategy. On June 30, 2010, in a Politico piece titled “Republicans go all-in on immigration as a political weapon,” Republican National Committee member Shawn Steel said, “immigration and crime will be the ‘twin drivers’ of Republicans’ midterm campaigns.” Carl Fogliani, a Republican strategist, added, “there’s a reason why Trump got elected. It’s the dominant issue. It’s obvious.”

The conventional wisdom espoused by Republicans and too many in the media is that attacking immigrants is a winning political strategy. We track these ads to both expose xenophobia and to rebut the basis of this incorrect analysis.


What Ads are Tracked?

The website tracks xenophobic, racist, and other divisive dog-whistle messages from candidates, campaigns, and PACs, plus anti-immigrant hate groups.

We are tracking both paid and organic electoral campaign messages. We are tracking xenophobic and racist messages in their old and evolving forms- older dog-whistles like “law-and-order” and “violent thugs” and newer dog-whistles like “banning Critical Race Theory” and “Biden’s border crisis.” The database will also include any anti-Asian, anti-Semitic, or Islamophobic dog-whistles that rear their ugly heads in electoral campaigns.

We look to collect these political messages in all their forms, in TV ads, mailers, campaign emails, TV appearances, Facebook ads, tweets, and in any other forms that campaigns use to manipulate voters. 


Are these ads really racist and xenophobic?

Yes. Not all ads are directly express racialized malice which allows many campaigns to fly under the radar with their messaging. However, they look to exploit racist ideas for power and profit. Using coded language and images the ads look to activate racial anxieties, fears, and competition. They are designed to demonize the non-white “other” in hopes of scaring white voters into voting for Republicans. 

Prior to the Trump era, the most notorious racist dog-whistle was the “Willie Horton” ad from a PAC that supported the George H.W. Bush campaign. However, the recent incarnation began on the first day of Donald Trump’s campaign for president when he came down the escalator to demonize Mexicans as criminals and rapists – a message he kept hitting throughout both of his campaigns and his presidency. During the 2018 midterms, he doubled down by railing about caravans and criminals. Many of those same messages appeared in ads from Republican candidates, political committees, and super PACs who followed his lead. 

Though these ads intentionally avoid any explicate mention of race, they use symbols and code to invoke, often unconsciously, negative racial anxieties in the voter. The code is key here. Without the explicate mention of race, both the candidate running the ad and the voter have plausible deniability that racist ideas are the active ingredient in the ad. In his book “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class,” Ian Haney Lopez writes, “dog-whistle racism is racism – indeed, it is racism’s most poisonous core – because it legitimizes, energizes, and stimulates the entire destructive project of racial divisions.”   


What is a Dog-Whistle?

In his book “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class,” Ian Haney Lopez defines the dog-whistle as a “strategic manipulation of racial ideas for the pursuit of power and material wealth.” In short, this means dog-whistles trade in racist ideas, explicitly avoiding naming race directly while invoking negative racial stereotypes that the viewer often reacts to without making a conscious connection of the underlying racial division. Campaigns and candidates use dog-whistles as an electoral strategy to divide voters along racial lines in order to invoke fears of the non-white other while distracting voters from the lack of real solutions that would improve their own lives. 


Are these really dog-whistles, many sound like fog-horns?

Over the years, many of the ads have gotten more and more outrageous and less subtle in their offensive messaging. Once a dog-whistle is made audible for a voter, the racist messages sound clear. This means for those voters who are tuned to hear the racist message behind the code many of the ads in this database will sound like fog-horns of racism. However, it is critically important to remember that for many voters who hear these messages in isolation the codes are still effectively allowing them to deny the racist ideas in the ad. This is actually good news. If most voters were consciously aware of the racist scam inherent in the dog-whistle and chose to buy into it in any way we would be in more trouble. To see the ads in this database still as a dog-whistle allows the option of exposing the destructive project of racial division behind the ads and presenting a vision where we all get more together.        


What is strategic racism?

Strategic racism demonizes the non-white “other” in hopes of scaring white voters into voting for a certain candidate. As Haney Lopez wrote in 2016, “Dog whistling is a strategy: it intentionally uses veiled terms to stimulate racial animosity, whipping up popular fears and stoking dangerous and misdirected resentments.” 


Are these ads effective?

One of the reasons we track ads is to provide an analysis of whether they impacted the outcome of the election. There’s a misplaced perception among some pundits and political observers that this is an effective strategy, evidenced by a “Morning Joe” panel the day before the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial election that predicted a Gillespie win because of the aforementioned racist ads. However, the results of that election proved otherwise.

In May 2018, Stephen Miller told Breitbart News, “The big fight this summer is going to be with the open borders Democratic caucus in Congress. That is the fundamental political contrast and political debate that is unfolding right now. The Democratic Party is at grave risk of completely marginalizing itself from the American voters…”  As mentioned, Trump made “caravans”  the central message of his 2018 barnstorming and numerous ads spewed anti-immigrant messages. House Democrats had their biggest win in decades.

In August 2020, Miller told Reuters that Joe Biden’s immigration stance would prove to be “a massive political vulnerability” in the 2020 campaign. Between April and June 2020, the Trump campaign spent more on immigration ads on Facebook than on any other issue, and our 2020 ad tracking project and report found that at the presidential level, Trump ran 157 unique ads that employed xenophobic messaging. Obviously, this strategy did not pan out.  

In February 2021, Stephen Miller told The Washington Post last week that Republicans should make the 2022 midterms all about immigration. Referring to the 2010 midterm cycle, he said,  “From a purely political standpoint, this is a recipe for Democrats to have a historic drubbing in the midterms if we can make it even as big an issue or bigger than Obamacare.”

Again, there is a pervasive belief, pushed by Republicans, that attacking immigrants is a winning issue. Many pundits and reporters accept this as a given despite a lack of proof. We track these ads, in part, to counter that wrong analysis.


How do I find ads on the site?

There are three main ways to view and find the ads throughout the database. 

  1. Filtered searches: In a series of eight dropdown menus on the home page, you can create custom searches based on individual combinations. 
    1. CANDIDATE TARGETED – Includes all candidates mentioned in the ad both positive and negative. 
    2. AD SPONSOR – An autocomplete search bar of who published the message.
    3. CONGRESSIONAL DIS. – Organized as the two-letter state abbreviation and two-digit district number. For example GA-06 for Georgia’s 6th US Congressional district. 
    4. STATE –  An autocomplete search bar 
    5. RACE – Political ads outside specific races will not be indexed here. ‘Local’ includes all state-specific ads outside federal and gubernatorial campaigns.
    6. YEAR – Ads prior to 2019 will be indexed soon
    7. TOPIC – a drop-down menu to filter by particular type of dog-whistle
    8. TYPE – This is where you can filter between organic and paid content 
  2. The most recent entries: The 12 most recent entries appear on the home page of the website followed by the page number. Older ads that are found later than the date they appeared will appear in the order that they are entered into the database. The date the message was first distributed to voters is indicated on each entry. 
  3. Keyword search: A search bar is located at the top right of the home page where you can find any of the matched items indexed in the database from 2019 to the present.   


Why do you track organic and non-paid content?

The organic and non-paid content helps provide additional context for the dog-whistles that appear in the paid advertising. Far from exhaustive data set, our database looks to help illuminate the full surround sound of the racist messaging. Additionally, the non-paid messages are likely the best early indication of what types of messages will show up in later paid advertisements of a campaign. Recent strategies and tactics developed by innovative campaigns have also continued to push the importance of organic content as a means of distributing a campaign’s message. Tracking the organic messages from a campaign may also give insight into what messages the campaign’s supporters and activists are moving with voters as well. 

What can I do if is see a dog-whistle ad?

There are three things you can do to help fight this strategic racism.

  1. Report the ad so we can add it to the database. You can report the ad here. Especially if the ad appears in print in a local paper, mailer, or bus stop ad. Those types of ads are hard to find outside of your community, however, it doesn’t mean that message is unique to your community. Often they are not. 
  2. Contact the candidate’s campaign that the dog-whistle is being blown for their support and let them know you do not appreciate the dangerous politics of racial division in your community. Remember they are running these ads to win votes and an election. When a campaign sees their political message is causing a backlash, they may change their tune. 

Help decode the dog-whistle for your neighbors. This can be hard and difficult work but when we help others identify and reject the scam of racial division we can come together and demand elected leaders work to make ALL of our lives better. Remember as recent history has shown, the vast majority of neighbors are with you.