by Rayner Reinhardt, Intern
Over the past few election cycles in America, political campaign advertising has grown not only in quantity, but also in combativeness. If you’ve gotten political mailers delivered to your door or seen ads polluting your TV or streaming channels in the last six to seven years — which I’m sure you have — then you might have recognized that political campaign communications have become more and more aggressive in character attacks and fear-mongering tactics. While divisive and important issues like abortion and inflation took center stage in this past 2022 election cycle, another emerging “issue” became a consistent talking point for both major parties: ideological extremism.
The Radical Left, MAGA Republicans, extremists, woke. These are all terms that are thrown around on my Twitter and TikTok feeds, but they also appear consistently in political ads from last cycle. Especially in states or districts that have a higher partisan lean, but even in those that don’t, the strategy of branding your opponent as an ideological extremist was extremely common. Tina Kotek, the democratic governor of liberal-leaning Oregon, ran an ad in the fall of 2022 called “Extremists,” which highlighted her GOP opponent Christine Drazan’s support of “MAGA extremists” and “MAGA Republicans.” Coined by the former President, MAGA has become emblematic of the fringe conservatism that was emboldened by Donald Trump and is now used as an ideological marker for voters. For liberals or more moderate conservatives, the MAGA label may communicate that a politician is someone to stay away from. Republicans have their own version of this ideological tagging. In a Wisconsin ad in favor of Sen. Ron Johnson, a narrator warns that his challenger Democrat Mandela Barnes “is a radical leftist” who supports the “woke agenda.” This particular word choice signals to conservative voters that Barnes is too extreme for their liking.
Branding their opponent as an extremist villain proved successful for both Governor Kotek and Sen. Johnson, but by small margins — 3.4% for Kotek and 1% for Johnson. The same was the case for Democrat Seth Magaziner, the Congressman from Rhode Island’s second district, who branded his opponent Alan Fung as “another Yes Man for a Trump-Extremist agenda.” Magaziner won his race by just over 3%. In Washington’s third congressional district, both Marie Perez and Joe Kent attacked each other for being “extreme,” and Democrat Marie Perez pulled out the win by less than 1%. From this small sample, this strategy seems successful — but not by much.
While I will be the first to admit that I’m slightly entertained by the absurdity of these attack ads and the frequency of politicians fighting like kids on Twitter, I’m left questioning if it’s a laughing matter at all. I think there are a few things we should be aware of when considering the short and long term effects of such divisive political branding. More and more ads are defining political races up and down the ballot as a battle between extremes. In any case, the idea of extremities are used to villainize opponents and cast them as totally incapable of compromise or reason. But how has this sort of opposition branding influenced the American electorate? Below, I take a quick look at recent trends in American partisanship, voter turnout, and ticket-splitting.
This villain branding is both a prerequisite for and a tool of partisanship. It’s not a secret that the political parties in America have beef with one another; the majority of Americans have very unfavorable views of their opposing party and its members, thinking they are dishonest, immoral, and close-minded. You might even hold some of these views yourself, and they probably come from years of soaking in various political messages about what ‘our’ party stands for versus what ‘their’ party stands for. But this extremist branding that we’re seeing today, which relies on buzzwords like woke and radical, is much more than simple political differentiation. Take Sen. Ron Johnson’s ad for example. His Democratic challenger Mandela Barnes is not just a guy who Johnson disagrees with sometimes — he is a “radical leftist” who “hate[s] America.” No wonder the parties hate each other so much. Since 2016, the amount of Americans who hold hostile views of their opposing political party has nearly doubled.
On the one hand, you might assume this type of language brings people out to the polls. A guy who hates America? Well, I have to vote against him! But research on highly polarizing political ads and voting trends from 2000-2012 has shown that negative ads can make a person less likely to vote and more apathetic with the political system as a whole. Other research has found that negative ads based on anger might be shrinking and polarizing our electorate. But what does 2022 tell us? According to the Pew Research Center, the 2022 midterm voter turnout was up by just over 10% from 2014, but down by 3% since 2018. So, people came out to the polls in this midterm of extremities, but not as much as they did in the past.
However, ticket-splitting was up this year since 2018, which means more voters were casting votes between parties — perhaps a vote for a republican governor and a vote for a democratic senator. Since the 1990s, ticket-splitting has made a massive decline, and still is nowhere even close to what it used to be as partisanship dominates. But this slight uptick does make me curious as to whether the extremist branding was responsible for attracting some of the moderate voters from the opposite parties, even if it’s pushing people closer to the ends of the spectrum and deeper into partisanship. As the pool of persuadable voters continues to decline, I view this extremist opposition branding in-part as a desperate stab at turning people against ‘the other side,’ therefore bringing them closer to theirs.
With Trump confirmed for a 2024 presidential run, I think we can expect to see a continuation (if not an exacerbation) of this extremist branding on both sides — and within parties. The recent indictment of the former president has fueled his narrative around his opponents on the left — in a statement addressing the situation, he said that “the Radical Left Democrats […] have been engaged in a Witch Hunt to destroy” him. In the case that the trial goes in Trump’s favor, I think we can expect his extremist branding of the left to gain even more credibility among conservatives, fueling the fire for 2024 even more. On the other side of the aisle, the left has shown responsiveness to this strategy too, particularly the young left. In an incredibly tight race for US Senate in Nevada last November, voters under 30 helped to secure Senator Catherine Cortez-Masto’s reelection and Democratic control of the Senate. Cortez-Masto and interest groups went hard on defining her opponent Adam Laxalt as a MAGA extremist, especially when it came to abortion — and it worked.
There’s reason to believe that this mode of extremist branding might succeed even more in the upcoming election. In 2024, even more Gen Z voters will be eligible and the shadow of Trumpian politics will still be here — regardless of the results of his trial or the future of his campaign. Radical, woke, MAGA, extremist. Any way you spin it, this rhetoric resonates with the American people and has shaped current politics. In a race in which it will be imperative for politicians to attract voters from outside their usual voting bloc and bring out numbers, ads attacking people for their extremist ideology might be a sound strategy. But with partisanship on an unnerving rise, will it be at the cost of any future cooperation or good will between parties?