A Searchable Database Tracking Racist and Xenophobic Dog-Whistle Political Ads
GOPAdTracker.com is a project of America’s Voice to track xenophobic, racist, and other divisive dog-whistle messages from candidates, campaigns, and PACs. Our regularly updated, searchable database tracks both paid advertisements and organic content. The project seeks to document the ubiquity of dog-whistle tactics to expose the strategic racism driving many electoral campaigns. Compiling all the dog-whistles in one location also reveals the urgency needed to address this serious problem. The site also displays the cynical “divide and conquer” strategy underlying the messages despite how the dog-whistle might change.
Our similar tracking projects over the last four years also show that although dog-whistle politics have been central to many campaigns, they are losing efficacy. After over a half-century of their potent use, it is notable that a multi-racial majority is emerging to reject the false and dangerous politics of division. Immigration, in particular, is losing its edge as a wedge issue. Left unaddressed, these racist and xenophobic tropes can still be potent electoral weapons, but if the dog-whistle is made audible and unifying solutions are put on the table, dog-whistles can be turned into a liability, especially in the context of a general election.
Politics aside, racist and xenophobic ads remain dangerous rhetorical devices that can have deadly downstream consequences. Lies and fear about a multi-racial majority were motivating factors behind the Capital insurrection. The racist dog-whistle political ads around the COVID-19 pandemic also likely contributed to a rise in hate crimes towards Asian-Americans. Finally, the racist and xenophobic dog-whistles of recent campaigns have been echoed as twisted justifications for mass murderers to carry out racialized political violence.
Nevertheless, many Republican campaigns will again lead with racist and xenophobic dog-whistles in their political messaging. Key GOP players have been upfront about employing this strategy in the 2022 midterms. On February 23 on “Hannity,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said, “I predict this, that immigration will be a bigger issue in 2022 than it was in 2016.” The next day, the Washington Post quoted white nationalist and top GOP strategist Stephen Miller saying, “From a purely political standpoint, [immigration] 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.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime Trump ally, also said, “If they don’t control this, it’ll be a huge issue this year, and it’s an issue that gets you into public health, into the issue of defending America and whether there are borders.” According to Politico, “Shawn Steel, a Republican National Committee member from California, predicted immigration and crime will be the ‘twin drivers’ of Republicans’ midterm campaigns.” Republicans have also made clear that they will use transphobic dog-whistles and create a bogeyman out of Critical Race Theory to help drive their “divide and distract” campaigns.
The GOPAdTracker.com database shows how prevalent strategic racism continues to be central in electoral campaigns heading towards the 2021 and 2022 elections.
DECODING THE DOG-WHISTLE
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.” Meaning 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 to invoke fears of the non-white other while distracting voters from the lack of real solutions that would improve their own lives.
Check out our video series Decoding Racism and Xenophobia in 2020 Campaign Ads here.
Coded racism and xenophobia did not start with Donald Trump’s campaign ‒ Richard Nixon used the so-called “Southern Strategy” and George H.W. Bush aired the infamous “Willie Horton” ads aired in 1988. Candidates have been using this tactic for the better part of the last century. In recent elections, strategic racism has not been confined to the top of the ticket or one region of the country. Local and federal campaigns all across the country have employed these dangerous tactics.
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, his political rhetoric took a dark turn. 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 nasty ads from candidates running for everything from House Representative to state senate to mayor to county executive. 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 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, and Democrats notched 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.
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. This coded xenophobic “divide and distract” strategy again failed for the GOP in 2019 for the gubernatorial candidates in races in red states. Governor Matt Bevin lost his reelection bid and Eddie Rispone failed to unseat Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards in Louisiana. Both Bevin and Rispone leaned heavily on xenophobic dog-whistles and received all-in support from Trump and his campaign. This strategy may have helped mobilize supporters for the uncharacteristically high turnout in both elections, but it just as likely motivated more of those repelled by this strategy ending in GOP losses in these red-states.
In 2020, the racist and xenophobic ads continued. Trump’s relentless strategy of cruelty and chaos toward immigrants over the last four years turned historic numbers of voters away from him and contributed to his rejection from office by over 80 million voters who denied him a second term. However, it wasn’t just Trump.
As our report shows, the highest reaches of the GOP firmly and aggressively embraced Trump’s racist tropes. We tracked over a thousand ads in this cycle alone that use this strategic racism to appeal to voters. While it is undeniable that it is a potent message with a chunk of the electorate, we have also repeatedly seen it backfire with a multiracial majority. This is new and important in understanding how to combat this formula. You can read the full analysis of the 2020 election dog-whistle messaging here.
WHAT ARE WE TRACKING?
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 are also tracking transphobic political messages. Not necessarily containing a racial component, the transphobic dog-whistles operate with the strategic division as the other dog-whistles, and pointing out this form of strategic bigotry is also important to the overall context of dog-whistle messaging.
Obviously, some of the dog-whistles will be more aggressive than others, but capturing a fuller picture of coded racial appeals helps provide a necessary context.
Unfortunately, due to the volume of strategic racist messaging we likely will miss some of the content. The non-digital election materials, like political mailers, are hard to track, so please report any you may receive. Also, if you see any ad you think should be included in our database, you can report it here.