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New York Campaign Ads Are a Tale of Two Cities

Ahead of the April 19 primary, we're seeing a kinder, gentler side of the Big Apple.

Daniel Berehulak/GettyImages

Muslim women in American flag headscarves. A shopkeeper speaking Spanish to his customers. Orthodox Jewish men walking down a city street. This is the New York depicted in a recent Hillary Clinton ad: a cultural melting pot that showcases America’s openness and tolerance.

Both Clinton and Bernie Sanders have released uplifting ads about the Empire State in recent days. But these are not indicative of how New York is generally portrayed on the campaign trail. Not since the early 2000s, when politicians were tripping over themselves to praise New Yorkers after September 11, have campaign ads shown the state in such a positive light. 

More often, New York is used as a symbol of greed, excess, and general depravity. It represents the source of the country’s problems, not its best aspects. It shows the fundamental clash between wealthy, powerful elites and down-to-earth people in real America.

In his 2014 memoir God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, Mike Huckabee described a great culture war gripping America that pitted New York against rest of the country. Fancy Manhattan restaurants, he wrote, never served grits. Guns were all but outlawed, and people stared at his cowboy boots on the subway. This is the New York most commonly depicted in campaign commercials, a city cordoned off from the American heartland and its wholesome values. 

Such ads reached a high water mark in 2010, when the memory of the 2008 financial crisis was still fresh in voters’ minds. CNN reported that candidates and interest groups had spent $25 million on commercials targeting the financial sector in the first three months of the year. According to a New York Times analysis, 200 politicians up and down the ballot in 2010 had referred to Wall Street in their ads that year. Most were Democrats, campaigning against the banks that had sent the global economy into a deep recession.

In one ad attacking Georgia Congressman Jim Marshall, he is seen cruising into Manhattan in a red convertible and sitting under the florescent signs in Times Square. His face appears on one of those signs, near a billboard of a scantily clad woman. “Jim Marshall,” it reads. “Voting with Pelosi, looking out for Wall Street.”

In another ad, Bill Schuette, then a candidate to become Michigan’s attorney general, sports an “I Heart Wall Street” shirt while waving a Goldman Sachs banner. Meanwhile, a smug banker with an expensive watch counts hundred dollar bills. An ad attacking Pat Toomey, then a Senate candidate running in Pennsylvania, shows him climbing into a private jet, as traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange cheer him on.

According to Erika Franklin Fowler, a political science professor who tracks campaign ads for the Wesleyan Media Project, commercials about the financial sector dropped off after 2010, but are now spiking again in 2016, thanks to Bernie Sanders’s focus on income inequality and Wall Street greed and Donald Trump’s attacks on money in politics. Chris Christie also ran ads in January hammering John Kasich for working for a Wall Street bank in the months before the economy collapsed.

Political ads are often about identifying a villain: someone or something that makes voters either angry or afraid. Commercials about Wall Street, featuring sleek office buildings with tinted windows, do both. Look at these bankers who threw the country into a recession! You should be angry! What’s going on behind those ominous dark windows? You should be afraid! That is what makes these ads so effective—and Wall Street such an obvious target.

Less effective are the ads that attack the city as a whole. In January, Ted Cruz released a commercial in Iowa that featured an old newsreel of Trump saying, “I mean, hey, I lived in New York City or Manhattan all my life, so you know my views are little bit different than if I lived in Iowa.” The announcer concludes: “Donald Trump, New York values, not ours.” The idea was that there was something rotten about New York itself—and the people it produces.

This is a difficult idea to sell because it requires viewers accept the premise that all of New York’s eight million people are fundamentally corrupt. It’s harder for citizens to draw the link,” Fowler said. “It’s easier to vilify the big banks than the city itself.” It’s particularly tricky territory for Republicans, who like to assail coastal elites for their moral apathy but often invoke the heroism of New Yorkers on 9/11 when discussing their counter-terrorism policies. When Cruz released the “New York Values” ad, “it didn’t end up playing very well,” Fowler said. Trump could simply write off the critique with a testament to the bravery he witnessed in New York immediately after the Twin Towers fell.

This version of New York was in heavy rotation in the early 2000s. Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate Gary Richardson released an ad that showed the Twin Towers falling and him hugging a small child. Republicans like Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss often praised the resilience of New York in their attempts to frame themselves as best able to handle a crisis. Even Wall Street could do no wrong at that time. As The New York Times pointed out in 2010, former New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine was emphasizing his Wall Street experience in his campaign ads as late at 2005.

In the weeks leading up to New York’s April 19 primary, the candidates seem to be returning to campaign ads that portray the city in a positive light. The Democrats are not only heaping praise on the Empire State, but framing its multiculturalism and diversity as an antidote to Trumpism. Trump, meanwhile, is reveling being in his home state, and is eager to turn the Cruz’s “New York values” remarks against him. John Kasich is doing the same

But this is sure to change once more as the campaign leaves the state behind. New York has long been a screen to project our fantasies and fears, our hopes and enmities, and it will continue to do so—in campaign ads and other media—for a long time to come.


Since Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary, the ad wars have moved to New York state, which votes on April 19. We analyzed six new commercials that debuted this week below. You can see every presidential campaign ad that’s run during this cycle at the New Republic’s 2016 Campaign Ad Archive

Bernie Sanders: “America” 

Type: Inspirational

Who Paid for It? The Sanders campaign

Reach: Aired in New York

Impact: Bernie Sanders has recut his viral “America” ad for New York. This version includes a far more diverse cast and New York vistas sprinkled in between the original Iowa scenes—as though Sanders is fighting tooth and nail to combat the idea that his supporters are monolithically white. 

Bernie Sanders: “Erica” 

Type: Issue ad 

Who Paid for It? The Sanders campaign 

Reach: Aired in New York

Impact: Sander originally aired a longer version of this powerful ad in South Carolina, where Clinton ended up carrying a devastating 86 percent of the black vote. But this abridged version may do a better job in New York, where it’ll surely galvanize young voters. The spot should pack an extra punch because Eric Gardner died in New York, in Staten Island, two years ago. 

John Kasich: “Values” 

Type: Attack ad 

Who Paid for It? The Kasich campaign

Reach: Aired in New York

ImpactWhen Ted Cruz skewered Donald Trump for his “New York values” at the Republican debate in South Carolina in January, the Texas senator likely never expected that he’d have to woo New York voters three months later. Now, those comments are coming back to haunt him. This is a very good ad. By first playing back what Cruz said about New York values and then flashing images of New York after the Twin Towers went down, it makes Cruz look unpatriotic.

John Kasich: “Ted Cruz and New York Values” 

Type: Attack ad 

Who Paid for It? New Day for America, the super PAC backing John Kasich

Reach: Aired in New York

Impact: This ad is less powerful than “Values” because it doesn’t include Cruz’s initial comments about Trump’s New York values, but it could still be damaging. I have to give New Day props for finding an actor with such a pronounced New York accent. 

Ted Cruz: “Kasich BFF” 

Type: Attack ad 

Who Paid for It? Trusted Leadership PAC, one of the outside groups supporting Ted Cruz

Reach: Aired in Wisconsin

Impact: John Kasich does have a pretty goofy laugh. This ad zooms in on it and plays it in slow motion to make him look a little deranged. But for the Republican electorate in Wisconsin, the clips showing President Obama praising the Ohio governor were probably the most damaging part. 

Donald Trump: “Concerned” 

Type: Attack ad 

Who Paid for It? Great America PAC, the outside group supporting Donald Trump

Reach: Aired in Wisconsin

ImpactTrump’s allies may have hoped this ad would stop Republican women from decamping to Ted Cruz, after Trump publicly attacked his wife Heidi. But while you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more stereotypical Republican woman than the housewife who moonlights in this ad, she sounds a little too stilted to be convincing.