WAER's 2020 Focus on Elections: Pandemic Means Political Ads Could Drive Campaign Narratives

Aug 27, 2020

Claudia Tenney is running to re-gain the NY-22 congressional seat she lost to Rep. Anthony Brindisi in 2018. Brinidisi recently held press events in support of the USPS in Utica and Binghamton. Tennney has held events with several law enforcement agencies in support of public safety.
Credit Courtesy Anthony Brindisi for Congress / Claudia for Congress 2020

The lack of large events for Central New York’s congressional candidates to meet potential voters face to face means they’re having to rely more heavily on other means to make their case.  Of course, there are virtual gatherings and smaller press events.  But campaigns are now relying instead on more political advertising.

If you live anywhere in or near the 8 counties in the 22nd congressional district, you’ve probably already seen the TV and internet ads. One term incumbent democrat Anthony Brindisi is trying to fend off a challenge by Republican Claudia Tenney, wants to reclaim the seat.

In the 24th district, Democrat Dana Balter is once again trying to unseat Republican John Katko.  SUNY Cortland Political Science Professor Robert Spitzer says the campaigns are operating under the same handicap of not being able to hold or attend large gatherings to rally voter support.

“Both have lots and lots of money to spend – lots of outside money as well as fundraising – so both candidates in both races are spending millions of dollars on media advertising on TV, radio and the internet.”

Spitzer says the impact of face to face gatherings can’t be underestimated.  Voters are usually more motivated to turn out to vote for a candidate if they have a personal interaction.

“I remember here in Cortland two years ago when Anthony Brindisi and Claudia Tenney, who was then the incumbent, both showed up at cultural events in Cortland, pressed the flesh, shook hands, talked to people and there’s no substitute for that,” he said.

But with the amount of money being spent by the campaigns, Spitzer says the narrative will largely be driven by advertising, much of it negative. Both Brindisi and Tenney have run ads accusing the other of conflicts of interest with cable and broadband provider Spectrum.

“Given the prevalence of negative ads, the response of voters is fairly predictable, which is that voters say they’re disgusted by negative ads. The reason we see so many of them is because they do have an effect,” Spitzer said.

He says the campaigns can also hold media events, which provide free exposure and, unlike ads, can add to a candidate’s credibility.   For example, Claudia Tenney has called press conferences with various law enforcement agencies to further position herself as a law and order candidate.  Her campaign ads drive home that point, while also trying to paint Anthony Brindisi as soft on crime.  In this way, Tenney appears to be aligning herself with President Donald Trump, who’s also made law and order a cornerstone of his presidency and campaign.  

For his part, Brindisi has the advantage as the incumbent of pointing to his accomplishments, which he’s highlighted in one of his ads. Brindisi passed the SPOONSS Act this summer, shifting production of flatware for the military from Chins to Sherrill Manufacturing/Liberty Tabletop in Onedia County.

“That’s a concrete accomplishment that he’s talked about a lot that occurred at the national level but has very specific local consequences for employment and the economy. So that’s a good example of a bridge issue that has potential to resonate with voters,” Spitzer said.

The professor says that’s important because national issues, and the referendum on President Trump, are dominating congressional races to a much greater degree than in past presidential elections.  Meanwhile, he says voters can seek more unvarnished information on candidates from voting guides provided by the league of women voters and other good government groups, even as the ads increase in frequency and intensity in the weeks leading up to the election.