Candidates Flood the Airwaves As House Election Draws Closer
“My grandfather grew up on this street, in an America where anything is possible.”
“This next chapter in American history will be defined by how we respond to the Trump presidency.”
“When I look at Congress, I don’t see politicians who care about the people I love.”
Prepare yourselves, television viewers of the 3rd Congressional District: those lines -- the openings to campaign videos from Dan Koh, Rufus Gifford and Lori Trahan, respectively -- will continue to inundate airwaves for the next three-plus weeks as the Sept. 4 primary draws closer.
Those three, who combined account for more than 65 percent of the $8.2 million raised by the entire race, have collectively spent hundreds of thousands of dollars already to broadcast their commercials across the district. Common campaign strategy calls for keeping ads running through the election once they start, so in the final month of the race, that figure is certain to climb.
Koh, Trahan and Gifford are the only Democrats in the 10-way primary to be running commercials on television currently. Others have opted to put their videos on websites and social media, likely dissuaded by the significant cost of airtime in the greater Boston market.
Some experts caution, though, that other candidates risk falling behind as the televised trio broadcast their message farther and more frequently.
“Despite the explosion of social media, television is still something that everyone watches,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist and commentator. “TV still trumps everything.”
Ads so far have shared some key similarities: they all emphasize the candidate’ backgrounds, a key characteristic in a race where most of the field -- Koh, Gifford and Trahan included -- are first-time candidates who started their efforts with little to no name recognition among voters.
3rd District ads so far have also been widely critical of Trump, albeit in different tones, but that is perhaps unexpected for a Democratic primary where an April poll found the president with an 88 percent disapproval rating among likely voters.
Here’s how each candidate’s videos look and thoughts from experts who The Sun asked to watch each of them:
Koh became the first candidate in the race to air a televised ad when his 30-second spot went up in late April. In it, Koh talks about his Korean grandparents and Lebanese great-grandparents immigrating to the United States, tying his background to an idea of the “American Dream.”
Doing that, experts said, is a way of communicating to voters in a fairly diverse district that a candidate is in the race for personal, relatable reasons.
“He’s tying his political perspective and ideology and origination to show a personal motive to what he’s doing and also to show a trustworthiness and also to build bonds with people in the district so they like him and want to connect with him,” said Tammy Vigil, a communication professor at Boston University.
Koh’s second ad began airing in July. That one focuses more on specific issues as Koh mentions his support for universal health care and his desire to “tak(e) on the gun lobby.”
John Cluverius, a UMass Lowell political science professor, said he sees Koh’s two ads as carrying a distinctly energetic tone -- Koh ends both with his campaign slogan, “Let’s Go,” after all.
“This is about somebody who’s going to get things done for you,” Cluverius said. “That’s the message they’re really trying to convey in both ads and stave off the idea that he is one of the younger candidates in the race. It’s to cut that off at the pass, in a way, to directly contradict that and say no, this is somebody who’s determined and energetic and going to fight for the things you care about.”
Gifford joined the airwaves in July with an ad that introduces Gifford, highlighting his background as an aide to former U.S. President Barack Obama and his time as an ambassador in Denmark. But the ad also focuses on a theme of trust, with Gifford depicted holding several one-on-one conversations and discussing the need to restore trust in government.
Even with its criticism of the Trump administration, the ad feels distinctly optimistic, which roughly matches the tone of Gifford’s campaign so far.
“It’s smart politics in that reminding people of Obama reminds people they don’t like Trump and wish Obama was still around, and Rufus is trying to benefit from that contrast,” Marsh said.
Gifford’s second ad, which only recently began airing, stands out from the rest because of its overt focus on a single issue. In the spot, Gifford highlights his plans to create green jobs in the 3rd District by investing in renewable energy sources.
Once again, by showing a picture of the two of them together, the ad references Gifford’s connections to Obama before depicting images of off-shore windmills and the candidate looking at solar panels.
Whether the strategy is effective remains to be seen, but experts noted that the ad did set itself apart from others in the field by focusing on one issue.
“I think he’s the only one that really specifically talked about renewable energy, which is the only thing that’s a little more specific and the only thing the others didn’t touch on,” Vigil said. “Everything else was more generic: education, health care, civil liberties.”
Of the three, Trahan launched her television push most recently. Her first and only ad began playing on stations across the district at the start of August.
Trahan’s ad, too, focuses on her personal connections to the district. She does not mention her work experience as a longtime aide and eventual chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan, nor her entrepreneurship.
Instead, Trahan highlights her family -- her ironworker father, her nurse sister, her daughter in public school -- and the ways that actions of the Trump administration and current Congress would harm them. She ends the video by stressing the need for a woman to fill the seat of current U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas.
“All of those connections are really close and direct, and I think that’s designed to give more legitimacy to those connections,” Cluverius said.
Several experts noted that although Trahan is trying to build identification with voters, they felt her ad came across as less impactful than others in the race.
“She tries to link them into an anti-Republican perspective, even anti-Trump, but she does it in a stilted manner,” Vigil said. “It doesn’t flow quite as effectively as the strategies the other guys use.”
All five campaign ads currently airing in the 3rd District can be found on YouTube.
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.