Campaign Strategy 101: Winning Hearts and Minds

By Felipe Lozano-Landinez, Jane Coffrin, and Julia Appel

The Political TV Ad Archive contains information about the televised ads during the 2016 primary campaign season. Our goal with this project was to explore this data set and see what interesting campaign strategy insights we could derive by looking at which candidates sponsored ads on which TV shows. To do this, we cleaned/modified the data set to specifically focus on candidates via what ads they sponsored (not which ones they appeared in), the program on which each aired, and the ad’s emotive content (i.e. positive, negative, or mixed). We took a subset of the data (all TV programs with more than 500 ads aired as of the time that we downloaded the data), and also filtered out all the Presidential Candidates that haven’t been relevant in the race as of the last couple of weeks. Finally, we grouped TV shows into four “Show Type”: Talk Shows, Entertainment, Game Shows, and News.

We looked at the data in multiple layers through a series of increasingly granular questions: How did the ads gets segmented by “Show Type”? Did a particular political party dominate a specific “Show Type”? Were Republicans more likely to advertise on certain types of shows than democrats? Were there specific TV programs/shows that were targeted by specific candidates? Finally, were the ads sponsored by these candidates “pro” ads, meant to bolster their candidacy, or “con” ads, meant to bring down another candidate’s campaign?

We think this is an effective way to ask questions of the data, and ultimately derive an interesting story from them, because our top-down enabled us to look at the big picture, notice discrepancies, and then dig further to try and explain them.  We wanted to tell a few stories that surprised people; our approach helped us look at something that made sense on the surface (candidates advertise more on news shows), but maybe not at a deeper level (Donald Trump advertised significantly less than the two remaining Republican candidates in the race).

We believe that campaign strategists are strategic in their message targeting, but wanted to better understand how they target TV viewers, and whether or not they have different assumptions than we do about the political inclinations of TV viewers. We also wanted to see if the actions of a candidate’s campaign would differ from the conventional wisdom that normal Americans have about those candidates. On the surface level, our views/perspectives may align, but when we dig deeper we deconstruct our perspectives and demonstrate where things begin to differ, leading to greater understanding of the larger political atmosphere.


If you prefer to get late night comedy from Stephen Colbert than Jimmy Fallon and you’re a registered Republican planning on voting for Donald Trump, Marco Rubio’s campaign manager Terry Sullivan knows it. And he’s trying to change your mind.

While it may come as no surprise that campaign strategists profile TV viewers to target political ads and maximize impact, it may be surprising what shows they are actually targeting. What we found about the political ads you’ve seen this election cycle may give insight into the campaign strategies of the front running Republican and Democratic candidates. It also may give you a reason to change the channel.

First, we looked at which categories of TV show were most likely to air an ad from one of the nine major political candidates.

Distribution of Ads over 4 Show Types

If you’re watching a news show — the Today Show, for example — you’re almost twice as likely to see an ad for a political candidate than on any other type of TV show. Which political candidate? Bernie Sanders and Marco Rubio.


What surprised us most about the breakdown of ads on news shows wasn’t who was advertising most frequently; it was who wasn’t. 


Notice Donald Trump, Republican nominee frontrunner and winner of seven states on Super Tuesday. He ran nearly 2/3 fewer ads than Marco Rubio, half as many as Jeb Bush (who didn’t even make it to Super Tuesday), and 300 less than Ted Cruz.

Emotive Content of Republican Candidate Sponsored News Ads Also, Donald Trump didn’t waste time attacking his opponents: he ran no attack ads (those marked with “con” emotive content) on news shows. Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco on the other hand, were slinging mud all over the place.

Why are we seeing fewer ads, and no negative ads from Donald Trump? Maybe he doesn’t need to run attack ads, since much of his media presence revolves around negative commentary of his opponents? Maybe he doesn’t need to spend as much money on traditional media because of his polarizing candidacy? Whatever the reason, it looks like we won’t be seeing any traditionally slanderous campaign ads from the Donald any time soon.

After looking at news shows, we looked at the category that aired the second most political ads: talk shows. This is where Marco Rubio’s campaign strategy got interesting… We wanted to see the breakdown of advertisements from Republican candidates on talk shows. 
Marco Rubio out-advertised his rivals by a margin of 2 to 1. Jeb Bush and Donald Trump were, again, distant second and third place runners-up to the TV advertising machine, Marco Rubio.

Republican Ads on The Late Show and The Tonight Show


Rubio’s advertisements weren’t all positive, either. Note the lack of attack ads from Donald Trump on both shows, as compared with Rubio, Bush, and Cruz.

Again we wondered: why is Marco Rubio trying to win the hearts and minds of these TV viewers? Is he trying to attract young voters, and perhaps draw them from the front-running Democratic candidate? Is he trying to appeal to young voters as a moderate candidate? Is he a moderate candidate?

Only time will tell whether these ad strategies — or lack thereof — will really influence voters; until then, we will continue to wonder how the political strategists are targeting our favorite TV shows.