Political advertising underwent a dramatic evolution in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, with emotionally potent narratives helping launch several newcomers onto the national stage.
While not all these candidates were as successful as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose campaign video “The Courage to Change” helped propel her to an unexpected primary victory and then a prominent role in U.S. politics, powerful ads for candidates like Texas Democrat MJ Hegar and Wisconsin gubernatorial hopeful Kelda Roys laid a foundation for personal storytelling to be a key part of campaigns moving forward.
Today we saw a new entrant into this era of highly personal and emotionally resonant political ads with astronaut Mark Kelly’s announcement that he will run for the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Arizona’s John McCain.
While Kelly’s announcement video follows a few traditional paths of political advertising—describing being raised by his strong-willed police officer mom and how he learned “the value of hard work,” for example—it also shows how he’s part of a new breed: Americans entering politics not as a career but as a call to service. That focus on the “why” someone got into government from a nontraditional path rather than the “how” of working their way up the ladder is likely to be a recurring theme we’ll see more and more between now and the primaries of 2020.
Here’s Kelly’s launch video, “My New Mission:”
Key to Kelly’s story is his wife, former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, who narrowly survived a 2011 assassination attempt in which a gunman shot Giffords in the head, killed six and wounded 18 before being disarmed. Together, the two have become iconic faces of the modern gun-control movement and founded a PAC called Americans for Responsible Solutions.
Kelly, of course, was already a public figure from his time as an astronaut, having flown on four missions before retiring from NASA in 2011 to spend time with Giffords during her recovery.
For Democratic candidates like Kelly, Donald Trump’s rise from political outsider to president has illustrated that it’s possible to vault to the national stage without a background in governance, but Trump’s rhetoric has also driven his critics to center their campaigns on emotional issues like their humble origins, military service, hard-earned triumphs and passion for bringing empathy to Congress.
Here’s a look back at how Ocasio-Cortez and Hegar helped pioneer an approachable, cinematic twist on the classic campaign launch ad:
When U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren launched her exploratory committee for a presidential race in December, she too turned to longform video to get her message out to potential supporters. While it’s a somewhat more traditional recap of a candidate’s upbringing and extensive political career, it’s also an example of how we can expect candidates to begin their campaigns by creating an emotional connection with voters:
Sen. Kamala Harris kicked off her presidential aspirations with a more upbeat launch video that, like Warren’s, splits its time between her personal journey, her political progression and the issues driving her to seek the nation’s top office:
Another presidential hopeful, Sen. Cory Booker, similarly used his launch video to talk about his family’s struggle for equal access, his path into politics and how he feels Americans should be brought together in a divisive time:
Between Kelly’s Senate announcement and the launch videos created by these Democrats aspiring to the Oval Office, it’s clear we’re starting to see a modern playbook for how Dems will look to leverage emotional storytelling and social media to begin building their voter base.
As for Republicans, they’re likely to take a different approach, also looking to their own party’s recent successes. Instead of telling emotional life stories on YouTube, they’re likely to take a Trumpian approach of focusing on their Democratic opponents’ perceived shortcomings or simply leveraging red-meat issues that energize conservative voters, such as gun rights, taxes, abortion and religion.
When predicting how Republican office seekers might position themselves in video (for races like the U.S. Senate, not for the presidential race, where primary opposition to Trump is unlikely), one recent example worth looking at is Brian Kemp, who narrowly defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams in Georgia’s hard-fought 2018 gubernatorial election.
Kemp’s ads didn’t mince words in focusing on his conservative credentials:
It’s clear both parties will be working from categorically different marketing positions as we get closer to 2020, and you can expect much of the effort to be focused on building a base before the primaries. At that point, everything goes back on the table as both sides try to predict what kind of advertising and content will get Americans fired up and ready to head to the polls.