Racist campaign ads no longer politically costly
Candidates abandon old norms – and succeed
The barrage of racist messaging in the 2018 midterm election cycle was inescapable.
Mailers depicted Jewish candidates clutching wads of cash. Robocalls in Georgia featured a person impersonating Oprah Winfrey, who described Stacey Abrams, running to be the first black female governor, as “a poor man’s Aunt Jemima.” Attack ads in a New York congressional race cast an African-American candidate and Rhodes scholar as a “big-city rapper.”
Less than a week before Election Day, President Donald Trump tweeted a 53second video that portrayed a caravan of asylum-seeking immigrants as an invading horde – a spot decried as racist. During his presidential campaign, he called Mexicans rapists and criminals.
The number of racially divisive ads was jarring, said political scientists and researchers who track advertising.
“The new surge in nakedly racist appeals shows that, for a segment of the country at least, racism is no longer anything to be ashamed of,” said Kevin Kruse, a history professor at Princeton University in New Jersey. “While these attacks would have been seen as huge mistakes in previous decades, they’re now seen by some strategists as a savvy move to mobilize a certain segment of white conservatives.”
That can be attributed, in part, to the diversity of this year’s Democratic candidates, who included a number of African-American, Latino, Muslim and Native American contenders, Kruse said.
Kruse said the turn to more overtly racist campaign messages can be traced to the Republican Party leader.
“Republican candidates do seem to be following the proven Trump blueprint of appealing to the fears and prejudices of white voters to a considerable degree,” Kruse said.
Jamila Michener, a Cornell University professor who studies the intersection of race and politics, said Trump’s rhetoric enabled other Republicans to use language and race-baiting strategies once considered out of bounds.
“Look, if the commander in chief can open up his campaign by stigmatizing people who are immigrants and depicting them as rapists and that his campaign, continued at that pitch, with that level of racism, ends up being successful,” Michener said, “that’s a signal to his counterparts across the political spectrum that our voters are open to this – and that at the very least, they will not dole out sharp consequences for it.”
In the Florida gubernatorial race, former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis defeated Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who is black. Gillum was targeted by robocalls using offensive minstrel dialect and jungle music. DeSantis called the attacks “appalling and disgusting,” but also made what many considered racially coded remarks directed at Gillum and has a history of associating with white nationalists.
“I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist,” Gillum said in a widely-viewed debate moment. “I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”
In California, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter was re-elected despite being indicted in August on charges of misusing campaign funds. His campaign was criticized for ads that tried to tie his opponent, Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, who is of Palestinian-Mexican heritage, to radical Muslims and described him as a “national security risk” who is trying to “infiltrate Congress.”
“We stand by the ad,” Michael Harrison, a spokesman for the Hunter campaign, said Tuesday. “There’s nothing factually incorrect, and it’s important for people to know.” Fact-checkers have debunked the charges in the ads.
In Iowa, GOP Rep. Steve King was reelected as he faced criticism for his ties to white nationalists, history of anti-immigrant and racist remarks, and his support of a neo-Nazi party in Europe.
The Republican victories – and voters who seem to look past or welcome the race-baiting – may clear the path for more openly racially-charged rhetoric in future campaigns, Michener said.
“It signals something to the other folks who are running about what the possibilities now are,” she said. “Unless it’s alienating your own base in some way, or some part of your direct constituency, I don’t think we’re going to see as much disincentivization this year of this behavior as we might once have.”
That would signal a change from the past, when mainstream candidates used coded language or tried to distance themselves from particularly egregious advertising, such as the infamous Willie Horton campaign ad.
The ad, put out by a conservative PAC in support of George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential bid, focused on Horton, a convicted murderer who committed a violent rape while out of prison on a furlough program supported by Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. Lee Atwater, the Bush campaign manager, later apologized for the “naked cruelty” of using Horton as political tinder.
By contrast, Kruse noted, Trump seems to relish using charged rhetoric and himself tweeted the anti-immigrant ad, which was rejected as racist by CNN, Fox News and NBC.
“Bush never would’ve pushed the mugshot ad under his own name, and certainly not personally, as all sides knew it would’ve killed his campaign,” Kruse said. “Trump put this out personally and proudly.”
While it is difficult to separate the impact of campaign ads from other factors in election outcomes and on voters, many people interviewed on Tuesday were of two camps: They were either repulsed by the blatant racist appeals or they did not pay attention to the ads.
Doris Flores shrugged off the tactics. “I haven’t really paid attention to them,” said the 53-year-old nurse and Trump supporter, who is originally from the Philippines. While she called the words coming out of the president’s mouth “horrible,” Flores likes his policies.
On the other hand, Tammy Brackens, 48, a nurse who lives in a Houston suburb, condemned the ads as “mud-slinging and scare tactics.” But she acknowledged that they can be effective in driving people to the polls out of fear.
Michener says that trend of stoking racial divisions is a continuation of dynamics long at play in U.S. politics.
“President Trump has certainly sparked that. He’s amplified it and exacerbated it, but he’s working with what was already there,” Michener said. “A lot of that stuff has been embedded in our polity from before the beginning, before we were even the United States. It never goes away.”
Stacey Abrams was the subject of racist robocalls as she campaigned to be governor of Georgia.