What Abbott and Davis' ads say about them

Photo by Stephen Spillman

With November drawing near, the gubernatorial campaigns of Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis have ritualistically taken to the airwaves.

While much discussion has focused on whether particular ads have proven effective, little attention has been paid to how the emotional tones of these ads reflect the strategies behind each campaign. So far it’s been a classic contest between fear and anxiety, and hope and stability — and these rhetorical choices reveal what the candidates really think about the current state of the race.

The impact of emotion on voters' cognitive processes — and in some cases, their behavior — has been well documented by prominent scholars. Feeling hopeful signals that all is well and that we can rely on our habits. In the case of politics and partisanship, if you feel hopeful and consider yourself a Republican, even loosely, you're likely to vote Republican. On the other hand, anxiety signals to those experiencing it that they need to stop and gather new information. Relying on a habitual approach in the face of anxiety — an uncomfortable emotion defined by uncertainty about a given situation — may be harmful to one’s interests, so anxious people feel compelled to pause and learn more.

Davis kicked off her fall advertising campaign with “A Texas Story,” an ad that recounts the brutal rape of a Texas woman by a vacuum cleaner salesman.

There’s scary music, grainy footage and an ominous tone — cues that are intended to provoke anxiety. As the ad attempts to induce the viewer into a state of fear, it then presents the information the campaign wants you to learn and remember: Abbott’s minority opinion as a member of the Texas Supreme Court that the vacuum cleaner company was not liable for the salesman’s actions. An anxious viewer might then ask friends or family about the accusation or turn to a quick online search. Davis’ other recent ads maintain the same anxiety-inducing tone, which stands in stark contrast to Abbott’s hopeful message in his fall ads, like one from earlier this month called "Garage."

For Davis to have any chance in November, she’ll need to shake up, or at least loosen, the fundamental partisan dynamics underlying the electorate — the same dynamics that Abbott is looking to maintain. The use of intense subject matter in ads is one tool in this process.

It’s not that either candidate is running a positive or negative campaign per se. Both are running the campaign that gives them the best shot at winning given the electoral context each faces. Other elements of Davis' campaign, in particular the release of her memoir, may provide plenty of hope and resolve for her supporters, but she chose to begin the public phase of the election season with a slate of ads that were clearly intended to induce anxiety with the hope of shaking Texans from their reflexively Republican positions. Given this approach, Abbott will likely find success assuming this election proceeds on a business-as-usual track. Inducing hopefulness in the electorate may also give Abbott the strategic advantage of reinforcing Republican voters’ partisan predispositions.

By paying attention to the emotional dynamics underlying these prominent campaign ads, observers can get a clearer sense of how each campaign really views the race, regardless of what their fundraising emails say.

In the end, an emotional electorate will pick the next governor of Texas, and the campaigns wouldn’t have it any other way.

DisclosureThe University of Texas at Austin has been a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Bethany Albertson

Assistant professor of government at UT-Austin


Joshua Blank

Research director, Texas Politics Project, University of Texas at Austin