The election may be about President Donald Trump, but most of the final ads aren't

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President Donald Trump continued his closing midterm campaign tour in Indiana where he tried to counter campaigning by former President Barack Obama who will visit the state during the weekend (Nov. 2)
AP

WASHINGTON – In red-state America, President Donald Trump is at the very heart of the GOP’s closing campaign message.

In the Tennessee Senate race alone, Republicans ran over 11,000 broadcast TV ads last month featuring Trump, who is also a regular presence in GOP Senate ads in West Virginia, Montana, Mississippi and North Dakota.  

But in the purple states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Nevada, the president is nowhere to be seen.

Republicans aired almost 13,000 broadcast TV ads in those three Senate races in the month of October, and Trump was mentioned in just three of them, according to data provided to the USA TODAY Network by the nonpartisan firm of Kantar Media/CMAG.

The 2018 midterms are viewed by many as a national referendum on President Trump.

“These elections aren’t really about specific issues,” GOP pollster Dan Judy said. “They’re about Donald Trump. Everything is about Donald Trump.”

But in the multi-million-dollar campaigns both sides are waging on television, his role varies dramatically from state to state and race to race, from omnipresence to utter absence.

The October breakdown

A review of the broadcast TV advertising for the month of October found that 10 percent of all the ads aired in races for House, Senate and governor mentioned Trump.

About 8 percent of GOP ads mentioned Trump, almost all positively.

Roughly 11 percent of Democratic ads mentioned Trump, most negatively. But about one fifth of the Democratic ads that mention the president invoke him in a positive light. Most of those have been aired by Democratic Senators in red states that Trump won handily in 2016, such as Indiana, Missouri, Montana and North Dakota.

While Trump is a dominating presence and issue in this year’s election, both sides have invoked the president in limited and highly targeted ways in their broadcasting advertising.

Republicans have confined their mentions of Trump almost exclusively to very conservative states and districts, using the president to motivate their party’s base while steering clear of Trump in places where he’s either unpopular or simply divisive.

A review of the ad data shows that 98 percent of the GOP ads for House, Senate and governor that mentioned Trump last month were aired in states or districts that Trump carried in 2016. And the vast majority were aired in places he carried by landslide margins.  

The president was mentioned in roughly 60 percent of the GOP Senate ads in Tennessee and West Virginia last month, roughly 50 percent in Mississippi, and almost 40 percent in Montana and North Dakota. 

“Marsha Blackburn will stand with Trump to build the wall and stop the caravan,” promises the Republican running to succeed retiring Sen. Bob Corker in Tennessee.

Trump has been mentioned in GOP ads for governor in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Arkansas. And he has figured heavily in GOP House ads in some conservative blue-collar areas such as West Virginia’s third district, where he appeared in every Republican ad.

But the party has avoided using Trump in most classic battleground states, including states that Trump carried narrowly in 2016, such as Wisconsin and Michigan. No GOP ads for House, Senate or governor mentioned Trump last month in Wisconsin, where Trump’s approval rating has lingered in the 40s. None mentioned Trump in Ohio, a state he carried by eight points two years ago. Only a tiny handful mentioned Trump in Michigan. In Florida, only a few hundred of the more than 60,000 broadcast TV ads aired by Republicans in these races mentioned Trump.  

Senate GOP ads take on president

Where Republicans have mentioned Trump, it has been almost uniformly positive.

Only two Republicans in House, Senate or gubernatorial races across the country tried to create some distance from Trump on the airways in October, according to CMAG data, which does not include cable or radio ads.

“When I don’t agree with what President Trump does or says, I’ve said it,” Rick Scott, the Republican challenging Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, says in a Spanish-language ad that aired at low levels. “My only commitment is with you.”

Although Scott was one of the first prominent Republican politicians in the nation to embrace Trump’s candidacy in 2016, he’s toned down his relationship with the president since running for the Senate – especially given Trump’s attacks on Hispanics and crackdown on immigration. About one in six voters in the Sunshine State is Hispanic.

In heavily Democratic New Jersey, Republican Bob Hugin released a late ad telling voters he will stand up to Trump.

“Marines never back down from a fight,” says Hugin, who is running against Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez.

 Mendendez responded with his own ad telling voters not to believe Hugin. It showed a picture of Hugin and Trump shaking hands at the White House, argued Hugin was silent after the president made “racist comments,” and highlighted Hugin’s role as a top New Jersey fundraiser for Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Democrat ads vary on Trump

The use of Trump on the Democratic side has followed a more varied pattern.  

First, there are the red states where Democrats – facing tough bids – are linking themselves to Trump.

Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly has run the most “pro-Trump” ads of any Democrat in the country.  

 The first senator to run an ad this cycle showcasing approval from Trump, Donnelly is also making Trump a big part of his closing argument in a state the president is visiting twice in the final four days of campaigning.

Positive references to Trump appear in more than half of the broadcast ads Donnelly ran in October.

As Donnelly splits a log in two with an ax in one ad, he brags about splitting with his own party to back Trump’s border wall.

“You look at the ads, and you almost think there are three parties running in Indiana – Republican, Democrat and independent,” said Paul Helmke, an Indiana University civics professor. “He’s running as an independent.”

Donnelly ran more than 6,000 “pro-Trump” ads in Indiana last month. Senate Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri ran more than 3,000.  Democrats in Senate races in red-state Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia have run numerous ads that mention Trump positively or tout their work with the president. Some Democratic Senate candidates, such as Phil Bredesen in Tennessee, have both criticized Trump and touted working with the president in their ads.

“There’s a lot of things I don’t personally like about Donald Trump,” Bredesen says in one ad. “But he’s the president of the United States and if he has an idea and is pushing something that I think is good for the people of Tennessee, I’m going to be for it.”

In another ad, he says he can work with Trump – “an experienced negotiator” – to get drug companies to lower the cost of prescription drugs.

In many battleground states and districts, Democrats don’t mention Trump at all in their ads, either because they think their base doesn’t need the reminder, or they are trying to appeal to independent voters who voted for Trump or have mixed feelings about the president.

 “Our candidates are not talking about the president very much,” Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said on NPR. “No one is going to talk about Donald Trump more than Donald Trump … We don’t need to talk about him much.”

Democrats don’t mention Trump in their ads for governor and senator in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, where Trump won narrowly in 2016. They barely mention him in Michigan and Ohio.

 But they’re airing anti-Trump ads in battleground states such as Florida (for governor and U.S. Senate) and Nevada (for Senate).  They’re also attacking Trump in blue-state races such as the New Jersey Senate contest and races for governor in Oregon, California, Connecticut and Illinois.

The most concentrated anti-Trump ad campaigns are in vulnerable GOP House districts where Trump was outvoted by Hillary Clinton in 2016, such as California’s 45th district in Orange County and Virginia’s 10th district in the suburbs outside Washington D.C. 

Every Democratic ad in both races last month attacked Trump and linked the GOP incumbent to the president.

“Barbara Comstock may as well be Barbara Trumpstock,” says an ad in Virginia for Democratic challenger Jennifer Wexton. “Change is coming.”

Contributing: Ledyard King and Herb Jackson, USA TODAY Network.

More: Young voter turnout in midterm elections is often dismal. This year could be different

More: A look at the polls ahead of the 2018 midterm elections shows tighter Democratic lead

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President Donald Trump, right, shakes hands with Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, left, during a rally, Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018, in Lewis Center, Ohio. John Minchillo, APPresident Donald Trump, right, greets Senate candidate Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., during a rally, Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Matt Rourke, AP

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