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COVID is one of the top 5 issues in GOP ads in only two battleground states

Candidates begin final weekend of campaigning
Candidates begin final weekend of campaigning with stops in Midwest 07:31

As U.S. cases of COVID-19 surge, filling up hospitals and setting new records, Republicans are tiptoeing around the pandemic on national and local airwaves. A review of the top issues addressed in television advertising in 11 battleground states reveals coronavirus ranked as one of the top five issues in GOP ads in only two states in the presidential race from September 1 through October 24.

Over 228,000 people have died in the U.S. from COVID-19, and there were 88,000 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday. According to Johns Hopkins University, there have been more than 8.9 million cases nationwide. 

And yet, the coronavirus is a top-five issue in Republican ads in only two states, Michigan and Minnesota, according to a review of TV ads by Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group. There have been more than 167,500 cases of COVID-19 and more than 7,250 deaths in Michigan, while in Minnesota, there have been more than 142,000 cases and 2,400 deaths. 

In Michigan, just under a third of Republican ad spending — 32% — in nearly eight weeks mentioned the pandemic. The top Republican TV ad messaging there was pro-Trump, which was included in 99% of ad spending.

This comes as the most recent CBS News Battleground Tracker poll shows more likely Michigan voters believe President Trump set a bad example in his own battle earlier this month with COVID-19:  41% said he handled it responsibility, while 59% said his handling of it was irresponsible.

Meanwhile in Minnesota, coronavirus appeared in 34% of GOP ad spending. Here, Republican ads in the state are emphasizing anti-Biden messaging, which was on display in 98% of Republican ads over eight weeks. 

"Biden's plan means higher taxes on all income groups," claims the narrator in an ad aired in the state by the pro-Trump Super PAC America First Action. 

The pandemic also isn't rating among the top five issues Republicans are investing in on national network or cable advertising either. 

"There's no credible message there when it comes to Trump on COVID," said Republican strategist Rob Stutzman about the lack of Republican coronavirus messaging in the presidential race. "Down ballot they can talk about their votes and what they did, but Trump doesn't have that. There's no narrative there."

On Wednesday, the Republican National Committee poured another $9 million into its existing $14 million ad buy targeting senior citizens in Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin. "Attention, fellow seniors: This election will determine your Medicare premiums," one ad declares, before falsely accusing the Biden-Harris campaign of eliminating private insurance plans.

Meanwhile, the Trump campaign is highlighting the president's handling of the economy during commercial breaks.

While Republicans are keeping their distance from COVID in their ads for the presidential race, Democrats have been leaning in hard on coronavirus TV messaging. The virus is a top-five issue in every one of the 11 states reviewed: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin. 

"You know what real leadership looks like? For Joe Biden it means listening to experts," says the narrator in an ad by Future Forward PAC, with an image of Dr. Fauci in it.

More than $135.6 million was spent on messaging mentioning the pandemic, and in eight of the states, 50% of all Democrats' TV ad spending in the presidential race included coronavirus messaging from the start of September through October 24. In Michigan and Minnesota, it was upwards of 64%. COVID-19 was also a major issue for Democrats in national cable and network TV ads.

The Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA is one of the biggest outside spenders in the presidential race on TV advertising in the general election. It's been running ads on the pandemic since the spring and its data in six battleground states continues to find voters trust Biden over Trump on dealing with the coronavirus.

"Bad public health policy is bad politics and voters are on to this," said Guy Cecil on Wednesday. "They understand that coronavirus cases are rising. They hold the president responsible for it."

The Biden campaign reflects Democratic coronavirus messaging on the airwaves during in-person stops on the campaign trail, staging socially distanced campaign gatherings and CDC-friendly "drive in" rallies. On Wednesday, the former vice president appeared in front of large graphs depicting COVID hospitalizations and warned the cases of COVID will be a "bigger wave of anything we've experienced to date."

Despite his opponents' attacks and the GOP's avoidance of COVID-19 messaging, the president's campaign hasn't completely been silent on the pandemic in its ads. In one ad first aired in mid-October, the narrator claimed, "President Trump is leading, attacking the virus head-on," and an earlier ad touted the president's recovery from COVID-19. 

On the campaign trail, the president rejects the reality of a COVID-19 uptick, dismissing it as a "fake news media conspiracy." 

"COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID...," Trump remarked to supporters gathered in Lansing, Michigan, Tuesday. "We have a spike in cases. Do you ever notice they don't use the word 'death?' They use the word 'cases.'"

The president reprised misleading claims that increased testing has led to increased case numbers. "We're testing everybody. In many ways, I hate it." While testing more people does identify more cases, rates of positive tests are rising even faster. Experts say the surging numbers being seen in many states are due to an increase in illnesses, rather than an increase in testing, and hospitals are filling up with COVID-19 patients. 

"A safe vaccine is coming very quickly," Mr. Trump vowed Wednesday in Bullhead City, Arizona. "You are going to have it momentarily," he vowed, although pharmaceutical companies and the nation's leading doctors have offered no such guarantees. 

Bo Erickson contributed to this report. 

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