Political number-crunchers know that the world of Big Data has myriad inputs and outputs. But one of the oldest of the political dark arts has fundamentally been pretty much the same since the beginning of the Television Age: TV ads.
And yet, looking back at how political ads have changed in the last 15 or so years yields some pretty instructive contrasts about whom the campaigns of yore hoped to reach — and why. In fact, there's a pretty good dividing line between how the TV ad wars looked in the BBD era (Before Big Data) and after.
The year is 2000. Michigan Republican Spencer Abraham is in a tough re-election race against Democrat Debbie Stabenow.
Here's a snapshot of the kinds of ads Michiganders were seeing in that very close election.
One of Debbie Stabenow's ads from the same campaign featured this line: "As your senator, I am going to represent the seniors and families of Michigan. Frankly, the special interests can take care of themselves."
As Senate ads go, that's not a lot of fireworks.
But what makes these ads noteworthy are the assumptions that each campaign has made in deciding to air them at all. 1) That voters who are up for grabs care about the future of health care and 2) that their candidate can gain ground by making a better argument. BOTH campaigns concluded that in order to win, they had to debate each other over the same issue.
Same goes for these Missouri Senate ads, also from 2000, in the race between Mel Carnahan and John Ashcroft.
Both campaigns in both states were clearly targeting the same undecided voters.
Now, take a look at what warring Senate campaigns (and in some cases, the third party groups backing them) were talking about fourteen years later.
In Colorado, Obamacare and condoms.
In North Carolina, ISIS and education.
In New Hampshire, immigration and abortion.
Whether or not these were smart ads — or whether they worked — isn't the point here. What's clear is that both sides were fighting completely different wars. None of these ads were about winning an argument between the two parties or two candidates. These ads were about finding the people who agreed that their candidate's issue was the most important one, and getting those voters to show up.