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Biden-Harris "fanned the flames" vs. "It's time to unite the country": How the two campaigns' ads differ

In an ad that first aired Tuesday in Grand Rapids, Michigan, flames light up the TV screen, ominous music plays, and a narrator states, "While America's cities burned, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris fanned the flames." The 30-second spot is part of President Trump's final messaging push before Election Day that Mr. Trump will keep Americans safe. 

 The ad differs from the TV spots first aired this week by the Biden campaign. "I believe it's time to unite the country, to come together as a nation," Joe Biden says in a direct-to-camera appeal, reprising common lines from his campaign trail stump speech. In the video testimonial, images of people hugging, holding hands and voting flash across the screen. 

While both ads aired for the first time with less than a week to go before Election Day, they illustrate the diverging approaches of two campaigns in the final months of the campaign season. Since early September, Biden has outspent Mr. Trump by more than $200 million for television advertising, but data shows that's not the only major difference.

An analysis of ads by Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group found Trump campaign ads since June took a more negative tone or contrasted with his opponent. In fact, for a period from mid-June through mid-August, all of the president's TV ads were negative or contrasting. Data shared with CBS News show the president only began infusing positive messaging in his appeals in late August, a trend that soon reversed itself in October with a return to negative and contrasting pitches.

Meanwhile, Biden's advertising appeals feature a mix of positive and negative messaging. In late June and early July, Biden aired more positive ads than negative ads, according to Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group. The same goes for early August, and since the end of September, the majority of Biden's ads have all been positive. Notably absent from much of the Democratic challenger's paid airtime? The president himself.

"There's a state specific message in each of these [battlegrounds], whether it's fracking, say in Pennsylvania, or whether it be standing with law enforcement and opposing "defund the police" in Michigan and Wisconsin," Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller told reporters, Monday. But there's a candidate-specific message, too, built on driving down his Democratic opponent's favorability ratings.

"Biden's unfavorabilities are not nearly high enough for the Trump campaign," said Republican strategist Rob Stutzman, addressing the rationale behind the president's negative ads. "They've had a mission to drive up Biden's negatives."

A new ABC News/Ipsos poll released Sunday shows more than half of Americans — including more than half of men (53%), seniors over the age of 65 (53%), and independent voters (57%) — view the president unfavorably, mirroring his position ahead of the 2016 election.

According to the same survey, Biden's standing with Americans registers at 44% favorable to 43% unfavorable, although more men (49%), independents (48%), and white Americans (53%) view him unfavorably.

Stutzman noted a key difference between 2020 and 2016: the Democratic presidential nominee is viewed much more favorably.

 "For Biden, it's the other side of the coin. Trump's negatives are already high. Trump continues to do that work on his own." Stutzman said. 

Mr. Trump also continues to throw punches at his political opponent in a largely unsuccessful effort to reverse his favorability. "I personally don't think [Biden's] a nice person, but that's okay," Mr. Trump said to thousands gathered at his campaign rally in Bullhead City, Arizona, on Wednesday. "I don't think he's a nice guy."

After Mr. Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis was revealed October 2, Biden's campaign also swiftly pulled down all of the attack ads it had placed on Facebook.

Mr. Trump's campaign didn't follow suit — a Syracuse University data project revealed the Trump campaign deployed digital attack ads at relatively steady rates before and after the diagnosis.

As for the president's rare positive messaging on TV, four ads rolled out since late September made no mention of Biden. One ad highlighted rebuilding the military, another showcased protecting Medicare and social security, while the third and fourth touted his coronavirus response. The ads claim the president  will end the U.S. reliance on China and "eradicate the coronavirus" and that Mr. Trump,  who underwent treatment at Walter Reed Medical Center for COVID-19, "tackled the virus head on."

As of October 20, more than 90% of the president's ads took a negative tone once more or provided comparisons between the candidates, underscoring Trump campaign advisors' longstanding efforts to prevent the 2020 race from playing out as a referendum on the president's handling of the virus. 

And while Biden has had more positive messaging, some of his ads do take on the president directly. 

"This president has a lot to say about Black women. He's called us low IQ, unhinged and crazy," Black women say in one ad directly to camera. "We are extremely motivated and ready to vote him out. " In another ad, a Wisconsin farmer accuses the president of ending "over a hundred years of family farming for me and for my neighbors." 

The two presidential campaigns' advertisement strategies also reflect the overall approaches to partisan spending in the final lap of 2020. A review of ads in 11 battleground states from the beginning of September through October 24 revealed total Republican affiliated ad spending on anti-Biden messaging totaled more than $157 million, far more than pro-Trump messaging which totaled less than $100 million.  During that time, spending on pro-Trump messaging only outweighed anti-Biden messaging in only two states: Michigan and Texas. This did not apply to national cable and network ads. 

"Typically, a more common role of the outside groups, of the super PACs, is to do the negative [ads], partially because it's an easier message to execute," said Stutzman.

This was not the overall case this year for Democrats. They spent nearly $200 million over eight weeks on pro-Biden messaging, more than $40 million more than they spent on anti-Trump messaging. 

"Joe Biden understands hard times because he's lived it," claims the narrator in an ad by Unite the Country PAC first aired in Pittsburgh. "It's why his recovery plan will lift all of us."

The only state where anti-Trump spending outweighed the investment in pro-Biden messaging since early September was in Florida. Pro-Biden messaging also outweighed anti-Trump messaging in national network and cable spending.  

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