Home Politics John Aronno: On Politics Fun with Words: A Quick Look at Messaging in the Alaska Senate...

Fun with Words: A Quick Look at Messaging in the Alaska Senate Race


A Quick Look at the Alaska Senate Races Messaging-cover

With less than 30 days left until the midterm elections, the Begich and Sullivan campaigns and their supporting SuperPACs have dumped more than $4.7 million into television ads. The Center for Public Integrity has translated that to, roughly, $9.39 per eligible voter. In a state traditionally dependent on personal interaction with candidates, the transition from candidate forums to an all out blitz across the air waves — over 45,000 television ads in the Senate race alone — has been jarring. The emphasis has been put on 33-second clips and over-sized partisan mailers; hardly the type of comprehensive, analytical offerings one would need to understand the philosophical differences between the two contenders.

But since the August primary cemented the field, certain themes have emerged. The first is the looseness with facts displayed across the board, which has been litigated in local and national press repeatedly, and continues to be both an embarrassingly accepted practice and standard operating procedure.

The second theme is a laser-like focus on women. Both campaigns have largely allowed women to carry the narrative for their respective campaigns. Begich has employed the late Gov. Jay Hammond’s wife, Bella Hammond, as the latest campaign spokesperson. Since August, he’s also featured his wife, Deborah Bonito, his mother, Pegge Begich, and Margie Brown, the former President of Cook Inlet Region, Inc. Their roles have primarily centered around speaking to Begich’s character.

Sullivan has included women in order to push back against various claims made by the Begich campaign. After asserting the GOP challenger was soft on crime (including Begich’s disastrous ad accusing Sullivan of releasing a prisoner who would go on to allegedly kill a Mountain View couple and sexually assault their grandchild), Jamilia George appeared in the latest advert from the Sullivan camp: “I know first hand how committed Dan Sullivan is to protecting Alaskan women from domestic violence, because I worked with him to do it,” she offers.

George worked with Sullivan on the Rural Subcabinet Advisory Group in 2009-2010. Alongside George have been appearances by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), NRA instructor Elaina Spraker, Anchorage domestic violence attorney Stacy Walker, Anchorage teacher Leslie Moore, and Sullivan’s wife, Julie Fate Sullivan.

The messages coming from each camp are strikingly similar, as each tries to assert himself as the most Alaskan, most independent, most fiscally prudent, and most adherent to constituents over special interests. Sullivan seeks to tie Begich to President Barack Obama — and, in doing so, to Obamacare — and Begich counters by saddling Sullivan with the multi-billionaire conservative financiers, the Koch brothers.

A casual glance of the top one hundred words used by both candidates would see a lot of common area, as both try to share as much camera time with popular soundbites as possible.

It’s hard to quantify how much impact the thousands of ads are having with voters; which ones work, which don’t, and why. But, generalizing from views online, the negative ads have unsurprisingly captured the largest draw for Begich. While the incumbent’s post-primary ads averaged 3,146 views, the overwhelming majority of hits went to an clip released the day after the primary. That ad, entitled “Opponents — Mead, Joe, and Dan Sullivan,” featured a compilation of negative statements from Sullivan’s Republican Primary opponents. People clicked on that particular video over 15,000 times.

Sullivan gained his largest audience on the same day, but with a more aspirational video, entitled “Dan Sullivan for Senate: Running.” The clip shows Sullivan, quite literally, running. With music playing in the background, he narrates: “The Marine Corps shaped who I am: integrity, honor, results. And that’s who we are as Alaskans. An independent spirit. Optimism. And that drive to get the job done.”

Over 20,000 views hint that maybe this sort of advertisement is favored over the negativity that has become more of a theme in later ads; but it also be more reflective of the date it was released. A lot of people woke up that day to a fresh GOP Senate candidate and probably thought they ought to figure out who he is. The campaign also saw a spike in views after complaining about Begich’s snow machining skills.

The difference in tenor is much more striking when comparing the two largest Political Action Committees (PACs) weighing into the race, which have purchased the majority of advertisements in the state. Sullivan is being supported by Crossroads GPS, which entered with a $1.25 million ad buy the day after the primary. Center for Public Integrity lists $547,500 of that went to 3,809 television ads.

The Crossroads ads concentrate almost exclusively on Begich’s record as mayor of Anchorage, but use the frame to include his voting record in the U.S. Senate, affiliation with Obama, and health care reform.

Supporting Begich is “Put Alaska First,” largely orchestrated by Jim Lottsfeldt, who also handled a lot of printing and ad buys during Begich’s first run for senate in 2008. Put Alaska First has run over 7,000 ads in state for Begich this time around, honing in predominantly on Sullivan’s positions on the Supreme Court decision in Hobby Lobby. A comparison of these two leading PACs’ messaging offers a much more partisan contrast, which will assuredly ramp up even further in the coming weeks.