After researching and writing about the ground game in the Kay Hagan versus Thom Tillis Senate race in North Carolina, I decided to continue my research with the campaign, this time focusing on campaign advertising, specifically television ads.

The campaigns of both candidates follow the advertising tactics laid out by Iyengar and McGrady in Media Politics: A Citizen’s Guide. This race has a particular focus on negative, attack ads, an unsurprising strategy given the closeness of the race and the importance of a small number of seats in the Senate. I will outline, with examples, the types of advertising strategies used by both candidates, and analyze the attack-counterattack process used in the race.

As current Speaker of the North Carolina House, Thom Tillis is well known in North Carolina politics. This means that the early stage advertising described by Iyengar and McGrady is not essential for Tillis. However, his campaign has released several image ads to portray Tillis as a “man of the people”. The Kitchen ad gives a background on Tillis, citing his experience as a paperboy and short order cook. This allows Tillis to connect with regular people and distances him from the seemingly out of touch representatives in Washington.

Tillis’ ad campaign primarily uses issue ads, both performance and policy, because “when voters are concerned about the state of the country, both incumbents and challengers turn to issue ads” (Iyengar & McGrady, 2007). With Obama’s high disapproval rating in North Carolina (High Point University, 2014), the looming threat of ISIS, and other perceived failures in Obama’s term, Tillis has the perfect context to promote himself while attacking Hagan for her alignment with the president. In a performance ad, Math, Tillis describes what he has done for NC teachers, and explains that Hagan has voted with Obama 96% of the time, leading to trillions of dollars in debt. Not only can he tout his own performance as speaker, he can attack Hagan for helping to create the alleged mess in Washington. In a policy ad, Being Conservative, Tillis clearly states his opinions about traditional marriage and gun control, and references policy he has passed surrounding those issues, making a combination performance-policy ad.

Like Tillis, Hagan skips early advertising. As the incumbent, she does not focus on image ads, instead publishing plenty of issue ads, specifically performance ads. The Fabric ad, for example, describes the work that Hagan has done as a senator to save hundreds of jobs in the textile industry.

Although several performance ads exist in Hagan’s campaign, there are some aspects of her Senate performance that may be seen as negative in North Carolina and to which her campaign must respond. Hagan is consistently attacked by the Tillis campaign for voting with Obama a majority of the time. In order to separate herself from Obama, Hagan’s campaign began running the policy ad Same Team, that highlights her as the “most moderate senator in America” that is “not too far left, not too far right” in her policy decisions. This is a response to the claim that she only votes with Obama, and it emphasizes that instead, she votes for North Carolina, a moderate state.

The attack-counter attack process used in the race is portrayed in a recent ad war started by Tillis with his Toughest Job ad. This ad portrays a veteran mother with a son in the military calling out Obama and Kay Hagan for allowing ISIS to become the terrorist group that it is. ISIS is an issue that currently “grabs the headlines”, making it a wise advertising choice to involve it in an attack ad (Iyengar & McGrady, 2007). The ad ties into the idea of issue ownership by suggesting that Tillis is better suited to handle the “Republican-owned” issues of national security and terrorism (Iyengar & McGrady, 2007). Not only is Republican issue ownership of national security and terrorism evident in North Carolina ads, many close Senate races around the country feature ads about Democrats and their lack of action in the face of terrorism (Epstein & Hook, 2014).

Hagan’s campaign responded to the Toughest Job ad with a piece by a military spouse who trusts Hagan and criticizes Tillis for not taking a position about ISIS and whether or not to arm the Syrian rebels (“Fact Check,” 2014). This is a valid counterattack because if Tillis attempts to own the issues of national security and terrorism, he must be willing to give his expertise and position surrounding them.

Overall, the advertising strategy discussed in Iyengar and McGrady’s piece is utilized in this local race. Hagan has received more funding for advertising than Tillis, and recently the Speaker has increased requests for fundraising so that he can air more ads before November 4th (Jarvis, 2014). It will be interesting to see the content and tone (positive and performance-based or negative and attacking) of subsequent advertisements from both candidates in the final weeks before the election.

Epstein, R., & Hook, J. (2014, September 19). Republicans Sharpen Tone on National Security. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved October 7, 2014.

FACT CHECK: Speaker Tillis Desperately Attacks Kay As NC Military Spouse Praises Her Record. (2014, October 3). Retrieved October 8, 2014.

HPU Poll: Obama at 40 Percent Approval in NC, McCrory at 37. (2014, February 3). Retrieved October 8, 2014.

Iyengar, S., & McGrady, J. (2007). Media politics: A citizen’s guide. New York [u.a.: Norton.

Jarvis, C. (2014, October 6). Tillis’ campaign stepping up push for ad money. News & Observer. Retrieved October 7, 2014.



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