Historical Background

In 1954, Dwight Eisenhower changed modern American politics when he took to the airwaves and entered the homes of Americans in the first political campaign spot broadcast on television (Wood 1990). Ever since, television advertisement campaigns have been a powerful tool utilized by U.S. Presidential candidates, their donors, and their parties. In the 2020 U.S. Presidential election cycle, general election spending exceeded $1 billion (Montanaro 2020). An equally important factor in Presidential elections has been the demonstrable impact of race on certain issues. Racial identity has been one of the most powerful predictors in political party affiliation since the 1960s, when Richard Nixon and his staff employed the Southern Strategy, effectively re-drawing the political map for decades by making use of deliberate appeals white voters who had developed feelings of resentment towards members of other races for the progress of the Civil Rights movement (McGough 2013). Since this flashpoint moment in American history, politicians have had to reconcile a shifting Overton window which no longer tolerates explicit Jim Crow racism, while still being able to effectively communicate to a powerful white voting base that their policies will uphold the racial order that keeps them on top.

Kop van President Eisenhower tijdens tv-gesprek.
Daan Noske / Anefo. Nationaal Archief. Public Domain

Candidates have successfully managed this by employing subtle racial cues in their political campaign advertisements, especially in the television age. This is done by using certain imagery and language, often via “dog whistles” which operate below public consciousness and allow for the maintenance of plausible deniability. By focusing on issues that the public strongly associates with race, such as crime, welfare spending, terrorism, the war on drugs, and immigration, or simply by excluding people of color from these advertisements, Presidential candidates can speak directly to a base of white voters with racial resentment to win elections (Saul 2017). The importance of race in the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, along with a personal interest in campaign advertising, motivated my direction for this study. My interest in this issue was also sparked by my historical understanding of the critical impact which the 1988 U.S. Presidential election had on the representation of different races, especially with respect to already contentious and “racialized” issues. During this ad, the George H.W. Bush campaign released two highly controversial ads which were seen by many as employing racially stereotypically imagery to tap into the racial animus of white voters. The first of these two ads was the infamous Willie Horton ad, which showed a black and white image of an African American man while graphically describing a rape and murder committed as a result of a weekend work release program instituted in Massachusetts by Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis. Critically, the ad also referred to Horton by the “Willie” nickname, despite the fact that he had never gone by such a nickname (Baker 2018).

The second was the well-known “revolving door” ad, which showed a large group of prisoners in black and white, multiple of whom were people of color, walking through a gate to symbolize the “revolving door” or recidivism allowed by Dukakis’s policies. The ad drew public attention to the tactics of the Bush campaign when was labelled racist by civil rights activist Jessie Jackson, and even had to be re-shot to include fewer black people (Harrington 2017; Rosenthal 1988). Observing the impact that these advertisements had the nature of racial discourse in televised presidential races made me interested to see if there were differences in how the major political parties differed in the strategies they used to manipulate existing racial emotions. Racial emotions, as explained further in the literature review, include racial resentment and racial anxiety. Racial resentment is founded upon the attribution of differing socioeconomic economics of racial groups in the United States to personal failings, rather than societal issues (Kam and Burge 2019). Racial anxiety is founded upon fears towards minority racial groups and their behavior by white people, and is often invoked by politicians with reference to issues such as crime, drugs and terrorism (Skogan 1995).

“The Revolving Door”. Bush-Quayle ’88. 1988.

“The Revolving Door”. 1988. Produced by Dennis Frankenberry and Roger Ailes, Video, 0:32.

Importance of the Project and Personal Interest

Interested by both the history of political advertising, specific historical advertisements which have earned a place in history and with a wealth of prior knowledge from past assignments about the deliberate strategies of political parties to draw subconscious associations between policies and racial groups, I decided to engage in this research project for my Sociology capstone. I believe this project to be important because racial issues lie at the heart of our national narratives, with race remaining one of the most powerful predictors of someone’s life outcomes in the modern-day United States. As more attention is being drawn to the legacy of historical systemic inequality and its impact, and more people are realizing that political issues are tied to racial ones, it is critical to understand how candidates from both parties portray race in political advertising and use it to their advantage to curry electoral favor.

Bush-Quayle letter-heading. Daniel Oines from USA. Bush Quayle ’88. CC BY 2.0

Research Question and Variables

The question I will be examining in this research project is: What is the effect of political party affiliation on depictions of race in U.S. Presidential campaign advertisements since 1980? I will be studying “political party affiliation” as the independent variable and “depictions of race” as the dependent variable. The unit of observation for this project will be U.S. Presidential campaign advertisements which aired on television since 1980. I chose to look specifically at television advertisement because of the infamous Willie Horton ad, a television spot which aired nationally during George H.W. Bush’s 1988 Presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis. As mentioned before, there is vast literature speaking to the importance of this ad in both political television history and the history of race in the U.S. as a whole, and it has become widely regarded one of the most controversial political advertisements ever aired (Alschuler 1993; Mendelberg 2001; Hurwitz and Peffley 2005). I chose 1980 as the beginning of my sampling frame because on the database I will be using, significantly more ads are available starting after this election cycle. Candidate political party affiliation will be defined as the party which a candidate represents in an election. Political party affiliation was chosen as the independent variable in this work, largely because of the wide gap between the two major U.S. political parties (the Democratic and Republican Parties) in their measured levels of collective racial resentment which has developed over recent years. According to research from the Brennan Center for Justice, after reporting similar levels of racial resentment from the 1980s to the election of Obama, Democrats and Republicans trended in dramatically opposite directions after 2008 (Johnson 2022). Depictions of race was chosen as the dependent variable and will be measured in several specific ways. I will be defining depictions of race as the appearances of people of color within the advertisements, as well as the strength of positive and negative latent messages to be derived from the nature of how they are depicted. I will examine the frequency with which people of color appear in presidential campaign advertisements through manifest content analysis, and then analyze the subtext presented in their on-screen appearance, such as the use of racially coded language, on-screen imagery, voiceover narration content and the political issues brought up by the ad, particularly racialized issues such as crime and drugs, welfare spending, immigration, and terrorism.

Data Source and Sample

Screenshot of Living Room Candidate homepage

All data from this sample is being derived from The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials from 1952-2020, an interactive exhibit available on the Museum of the Moving Image website, made possible thanks to Columbia University and the National Endowment for the Humanities. For each election cycle, I observed five ads from both parties (Democratic and Republican, 10 total) which were selected using a random number generator to ensure non-probability. This way the sample will be as close to completely random as possible and unaffected by potential selection bias.

Findings Overview

I found interesting patterns present in both the qualitative and quantitative research I conducted into the advertisements I observed. For example, many advertisements included overt references to the beliefs that have been established by literature as being integral to the concept of racial resentment. Particularly, the elections of 1996, 2000 and 2004 all saw a dramatic increase in candidates (all white) mentioning aspects of their upbringing hoping to appeal to a blue-collar ethos. In one 1992 advertisement, Bill Clinton speaks about how his family had to work hard just to get by, and how self-reliance was a crucial aspect of his development as a person. A 1996 advertisement sees Bob Dole’s wife speaks directly to the viewing audience about how he was raised on values of hard work, following through with commitments and honesty. These attitudes were reflected in candidate language which vilified welfare, especially seen with Bill Clinton, who had several ads devoted to expressing his belief that welfare was “a second chance and not a way of life”, as well as offering restrictions such as time limits and work requirements.

Bill Clinton visiting Los Alamos Laboratory, Unknown author. Public domain.

Nonwhite political leaders were more likely to be shown in a manner intended to strike fear into the audience, with examples of note including a 1984 Reagan re-election advertisement which portrayed the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran as a hostile agent against the United States, as well as a 2008 John McCain ad on education policy which displayed a black and white photo of Obama while highlighting a policy proposal of his which would allegedly expand comprehensive sex education to kindergarteners. These two advertisements were clearly intended to lead the viewer to perceive these nonwhite or “othered” leaders as dangerous. This leads to another theme which was present mainly after 2008, the conflation of nonwhite political leaders with radical policy, a historical stereotype supported by literature. Along with the earlier education policy example, another 2008 advertisement from McCain deliberately darkens Obama’s skin and attempts to paint him as radical on energy policy, and a 2020 Trump re-election ad attempts to paint congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as radicals and shows their likenesses darkened and displayed in front of the words “RADICAL DEMOCRATS” in boldface. Many of the ads in my selected sample did not confront issues of race directly, with most focusing on the candidates themselves or attacks on specific aspects of the opponent’s background or policies, but the one that did confronted the issue aggressively, such as the infamous George H.W. Bush “Willie Horton ad” of 1988 and another 1988 Bush ad which focused specifically on prison policy, doing so by showing black and white images of a prison and predominantly highlighting minority inmates. A 2016 Donald Trump ad spoke in graphic detail about a murder committed by an undocumented immigrant of a white child, one of several ads to deliberately vilify immigration.

“Takeover”. Trump 2020. 2020.

“Takeover”. 2020. Produced by Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., Video, 0:30.

I also observed a distinct lack of any substantive representation of nonwhite people in early political ads during the sample (1980-2020). When nonwhite people were represented in these ads, they were mainly wither represented by the candidate themselves and their family (the first nonwhite character with a speaking role in an advertisement was Barack Obama in an advertisement for his own candidacy) or other celebrities (black celebrities singing Obama’s speech during a 2008 campaign ad). Overall, nonwhite people were more likely to be represented in ads for Democratic candidates, but not all this representation was necessarily positive or beneficial. For example, in montages showing policy successes of candidates, nonwhite people were more likely to be represented in a labor setting (such as a factory or construction site) whereas white people were represented both in labor settings and in domestic settings, such as taking care of children and spending time with family. I found that this may lead to the broadcasting of potentially harmful messages about the expendability of people of color and the prioritization of people of color to serve in an economic capacity rather than live a life with their families. Only nine advertisements of the 110 in the sample feature nonwhite families, despite family being a prevalent visual theme for many different campaigns. Two of these were Spanish-language Trump campaign ads made specifically for Puerto Rican and Cuban audiences, featuring almost exclusively nonwhite people, and another one was Obama’s family in a 2008 presidential ad.

Mitt Romney & Paul Ryan” by James B Currie is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Ads also played upon feelings of racial anxiety and racial resentment, just as I had predicted based on the literature. Specifically, I found that the racialized issue of crime was mentioned in ten of the advertisements in the sample. However, in the few ads which mention crime, we can more specifically observe a tangible framing of crime as associated with nonwhite people. In terms of racial resentment, I observed mention of issues relating to welfare, social safety programs and other resources that have historically benefitted impoverished people, but whose recipients have been racialized. Welfare was mentioned in some form in 13 ads in the sample, with these examples being heavily negative and often racialized through selectively mentioning welfare policy when most of those on the screen are nonwhite people, contributing to the idea of a subconscious association for the viewer.

#Obama - Four more years - 2012
“#Obama – Four More Years – 2012.” Fabio Gaglini. Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED