The May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the nationwide protests that followed, introduced racial justice and policing as major issues in this year’s political campaigns. Eleven days later, 2020 campaign advertisements on those topics began hitting television airwaves.
Republicans seeking federal office have aired more than twice as many TV ads with a public-safety message as Democrats this year, a Kantar/CMAG analysis for The Wall Street Journal found. The ad tracker’s public-safety category includes most ads about racial justice, protests and policing.
Republicans have kept up a steady pace of ads since this summer accusing Democrats of seeking to defund police and tying them to the “radical left.” Some of the groups involved in racial-justice protests this year have called for abolishing or shrinking police departments, while others endorse shifting funds to mental health and other services or other changes.
On the Democratic side, candidates aired a burst of ads this summer praising protesters—and, in many cases, distancing themselves from activist efforts to defund police. Democrats have largely returned to other topics, such as health care, in their advertising late in the campaign, the analysis showed.
The difference in advertising strategy suggests that Republicans see a political opportunity in supporting the police and saying that Democrats want to cut police funding, while Democrats appear to be more cautious on topics like racial justice.
“Republicans know how to talk to Republicans, especially Trump-era Republicans, about the cops, and they’re very comfortable doing it. Democrats have not learned how to talk to Democrats about police reform,” said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist in Michigan, a key battleground state.
Mr. Hemond said Democrats have been slow to settle on a policing message that satisfies the diverse coalition the party has sought to energize for this year’s elections, from younger progressive activists in big cities to well-to-do suburban families. And he said the party has long taken one of its strongest bases—Black Americans—for granted, leaving many Democratic politicians unaware of how to talk to them about the police.
“George Floyd’s murder has forced the issue. Democrats have to learn how to talk about issues like this now,” Mr. Hemond said, adding that some of his clients commissioned polls this summer to figure out whether defunding the police had wide support among Michigan Democrats (it doesn’t, his internal surveys found).
Police body-camera footage showed that a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on Mr. Floyd’s neck for at least eight minutes. The county medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.
Overall, ads with a public-safety message make up about 20% of all presidential ad spots, compared with about 9% four years ago. About 20% of all House ads talk about public safety, more than double the percentage in each of the past two congressional elections. Democratic Senate candidates maintained about the same level of public-safety ads as in previous election cycles.
Some of the most memorable campaign ads over the years have played on fears of crime. In 1988, President George H.W. Bush famously battered Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis with ads about convicted murderer Willie Horton, who raped a woman and stabbed her partner while he was out of prison on a furlough program that Massachusetts had in place while Mr. Dukakis was governor.
President Trump suggests in ads that electing Democratic nominee Joe Biden would touch off a crime wave. One ad from the Republican’s campaign shows Mr. Biden kneeling in front of footage that appears to show people breaking into buildings. “With Biden kneeling to the left, we’d have chaos in the streets,” the voiceover says.
Mr. Trump also was the first candidate or political group to advertise about the push from some to defund the police, on June 11.
“While President Trump always puts the safety and security of the American people first, voters can’t trust Biden to be strong on crime and support law enforcement if he can’t stand up to his supporters’ violent riots and he’s compromised by foreign entities,” spokeswoman Samantha Zager said.
The law and order ads are just one piece of Mr. Trump’s messaging strategy, she said. The campaign also has dozens of different ads about his response to the coronavirus pandemic, the economy and policies he has implemented in his four years.
Mr. Biden has said throughout the campaign that he wants to boost police funding for programs like community patrols. He has separately called for increasing funding for mental health and drug treatment services, which he said would ease some of the burden police officers face.
Mr. Biden has spent more than $7.5 million on ads that reference racial justice protests and Black Lives Matter, more than any other individual campaign or political group. The Biden campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.
One such ad from his campaign blends footage from civil rights protests and Black Lives Matter marches. “We choose to bring back justice, respect and dignity to this country,” the voiceover says.
Democrats in House and Senate races have defended against GOP accusations that they would defund the police.
Sen. David Perdue (R., Ga.), who is in a hotly contested re-election fight with Democrat Jon Ossoff, aired two ads criticizing the notion of defunding the police. The first, on July 8, called for some reforms to policing but said defunding was a step too far. A subsequent ad on Sept. 22 was blunter, calling Mr. Ossoff a “radical” and “dangerous.”
“Ossoff would defund the police, confiscate your guns, close Georgia’s military bases,” the ad said.
Four days later, Mr. Ossoff was up with an ad refuting the idea that he wants to defund the police. In a follow-up ad two days after that, Mr. Ossoff said he didn’t support defunding police but would take steps to build trust between law enforcement and citizens. “That’s how we keep Georgians safe,” Mr. Ossoff said in the ad.
Mr. Trump and Republicans have sought to portray Democrats as sympathetic toward antifa, a loose network of antiracist, antifascist protesters. They also sometimes refer more broadly to “lawless mobs” and the “radical left” in their ads about protests, without mentioning “antifa,” the CMAG analysis found. Many Democrats, including Mr. Biden, have condemned violence by antifa activists or anyone else.
The first ad this year mentioning antifa aired June 5, during the height of the civil unrest—including some violence and looting, as well as many nonviolent demonstrations—following Mr. Floyd’s killing.
It was paid for by Georgia congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene, a supporter of the far-right QAnon, the fringe conspiracy theory that a “deep-state” cabal tied to sex trafficking is working against Mr. Trump. Ms. Greene has talked repeatedly about the deep state and in now-deleted online videos discussed “Q,” a purported high-level government intelligence official whose online posts drive QAnon conspiracy theories, calling the person a patriot.
The biggest spender on ads mentioning antifa is the Committee to Defend the President, a pro-Trump group.
Democrats up and down the ballot have tried to balance supporting law enforcement and praising them for helping keep communities safe while also calling for changes to how they use force on citizens. Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, in an early September ad from the Biden campaign, said their administration would create “a national standard on use of force … and hold police officers accountable.”
Democratic messaging about the protests peaked in July, making up about 12% of the presidential ads and 10% of House ads, but they have largely faded away since this summer, now appearing in less than 1% of presidential ads and 2% of House ads