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Education Is a Wallflower in Midterm Campaign Ads

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 21, 2018 2 min read

Watching to see if a “blue wave” helps Democrats take control of one chamber of Congress next year? Don’t expect a lot of education talk to wash up on shore.

Last week, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report worked with CMAG Kantar Media to study how often different issues like education, health care, immigration, and taxes, as well as President Donald Trump, were mentioned in House and Senate campaign ads from the start of 2018 through July. Here’s how often they came up, and which party has brought them up most frequently:

Mentioned by just 31,582 ads in 2018, education appeared in the second-fewest ads among the 11 issues and people Cook and CMAG Kantar studied. In fact, only House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi got fewer mentions in ads. By contrast, more than five times as many ads mentioned health care than the number that mentioned education.

And Amy Walter, Cook’s national editor, said she expects the number of ads mentioning Pelosi—specifically anti-Pelosi ads—to “skyrocket” as the general election creeps closer. So education might soon slide into last place.

It’s not a surprise that education is getting snubbed on the political airwaves. The Affordable Care Act, the GOP-backed changes to the tax code, and President Trump himself are much more obvious and potent political weapons in appeals to voters. Even Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ position as perhaps the most prominent and controversial federal education chief in history hasn’t advanced the issue much, relative to other policy concerns.

It also doesn’t help education’s profile that lawmakers who oversee the issue in Congress mostly aren’t involved in competitive races this year. Leaving aside the Education Department’s annual budget, there’s no urgent education issue with momentum on Capitol Hill that would easily fire up activists, ads, and voters. And with DeVos’ push to increase school choice falling short, it becomes less potent as a wedge issue for Democrats.

Even where education does rate some attention in these ads, elementary and secondary education aren’t necessarily the focus. Perhaps the most high-profile House candidate who’s not an incumbent, Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York state’s 14th congressional district, called for “tuition-free public college” in one of her campaign ads.


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