Campaign ads are talking more about immigration. Here’s what we can learn from them

In one ad, a smiling toddler stacks toy blocks as an aspiring governor hovers behind her, shouting “Build the wall!”

In another, a little boy sobs as ICE agents handcuff his mother and lead her away.

The Trump administration’s sweeping efforts to crack down on immigration aren’t on the ballot November 6. But in the leadup to a key election that will either reinforce the President’s agenda or hinder it, the issue is playing a defining role.

Candidates and committees have shelled out more than $150 million on campaign ads dealing with immigration so far this year, a major increase over recent election cycles.

The theme is echoing in different ways in ads airing across the country — from creative spots featuring dramatizations to more conventional attack ads slamming rivals’ positions on topics like separating families, sanctuary cities and abolishing ICE.

Many Republicans are banking on the polarizing issue to drive voters to the polls. And some Democrats are, too.

“The intensity that we’re seeing this year is unprecedented,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the pro-immigration advocacy group National Immigration Forum.

Here’s a look at some of the ads hitting the airwaves, and key things they show us:

Immigration isn’t the No. 1 issue in campaign ads. But it’s a big one

So far in House, Senate and governor races this year, more than $124 million has been spent on more than 280,000 immigration-related TV ad spots, according to a CNN analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data.

That’s more than five times the amount spent during the 2014 midterms, when about $23 million was spent on less than 44,000 spots.

But despite this year’s significant spending, when it comes to TV ads immigration still ranks behind topics like health care, taxes, unemployment, government spending and corruption, according to ad data.

PACs and campaigns also spend millions on digital-only advertising, which isn’t reflected in CMAG’s data. In an August analysis of Facebook ads run by a select group of Senate candidates, the Wesleyan Media Project found that immigration was a key policy issue, ranking only behind GOP health reform in mentions.

Immigration is a top topic in some surprising places

“It’s not necessarily states that are on the southern border,” says Travis N. Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks and analyzes campaign ads.

For example, Ridout says, according to a recent analysis by the project, in Indiana 43% of ads in August made some mention of immigration. In Michigan, it came up 35% of the time. And in Kentucky 28% of ads dealt with immigration.

Campaigns across the country have been focusing on the topic, says Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution.

“It’s playing a very prominent role, maybe a more prominent role than it’s ever played before,” she says. And the reason, she says, is clear: President Trump.

“This is a president who got elected on this topic, and who constantly brings it up, uses it to stir up his base, and who has proposed some highly controversial things. … He keeps the issue front and center for a lot of Americans,” Kamarck says. “This would not be as prominent an issue under a different president.”

Take a look at ads in Indiana’s Senate race, for example.

Sen. Joe Donnelly, a Democratic incumbent fighting to hold onto his seat in state where Trump won more than 56% of the vote in 2016, released an ad titled “Borders” in August. It shows Donnelly driving an RV down a winding country road as he lists the many ways he sides with President Trump on immigration.

Republicans are counting on immigration to mobilize voters. Some Democrats are, too

Kantar Media/CMAG data shows both Republicans and Democrats are talking about immigration in their campaign ads.

“The Republican Party, led by Trump, is mobilizing their base with an immigration enforcement and deportation message. And Democrats are mobilizing their base with the exact opposite,” Noorani says.

But Republicans are focusing on it much more.

“Some of those bread-and-butter issues, both parties are addressing. But when it comes to immigration, it’s definitely one that Republicans want to talk about a lot more than Democrats do,” Ridout says.

In August, 26% of ads from Republicans mentioned immigration, he said, compared to only 5% of ads from Democrats.

The major issues: sanctuary cities, family separations, ICE and border security

Some of the most controversial immigration topics of Trump’s presidency are coming up in a number of campaign ads.

Shadowy characters prowling sidewalks as narrators warn of the dangers of sanctuary cities have become recurring images in Republican spots. So have mentions of MS-13 — the notorious street gang that the Trump administration has described as Public Enemy No. 1.

Several left-leaning activist groups have homed in on the now-reversed zero tolerance policy at the border, which resulted in the separation of thousands of immigrant kids from their parents.

In Oregon and Washington, an ad slamming the policy featured a desolate playground.

“Imagine losing your child for an hour, a day,” the narrator says. *An empty swing sways. An empty merry-go-round spins. And a graphic depicts a ticking clock.* “Now imagine losing your child for months and not knowing when or if you’ll be reunited.”

Idyllic scenes of an immigrant mother and son reading and laughing together are shattered when ICE agents come to the door in a California Senate candidate’s ad.

Kevin de Leon, a Democrat who’s trying to unseat incumbent Dianne Feinstein, narrates the spot, which features actors depicting scenes from his childhood. De Leon describes how hard his mother worked, and wonders what would happen if the Trump administration’s policies had been in force at the time.

“I never imagined the world of today,” he says, alluding to recent family separations at the border. “How would my life change if they had taken her away from me?”

Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis also features his family in an ad with a distinctly different message. In the ad, the candidate’s wife notes that President Trump has endorsed her husband. “But he’s also an amazing dad,” she says. ‘Ron loves playing with the kids.”

Seconds later, the ad cuts to a toddler — decked out in red, white and blue — stacking up multicolored blocks in a living room as her dad cheers her on.

“Build the wall!” DeSantis shouts.

Will this approach work? It depends whom you ask

President Trump has made it clear he thinks his continued emphasis on hardline immigration policies will power a “red wave” at the polls. Within the Republican Party, there’s been debate over whether that’s the right approach.

Immigrant rights advocates have described it as a doomed approach, pointing to last year’s failed gubernatorial bid of Ed Gillespie in Virginia, who campaigned on such stances as cracking down on MS-13 and ran a number of ads focused on immigration. One advocacy group, America’s Voice, has started tracking Republicans’ immigration-themed ads in a searchable online database aimed at exposing what it calls the GOP’s “ugly and cynical strategy.”

But it’s not only Republicans who have to worry, says Kamarck.

“People who are imitating Trump too much run the risk of turning off some independent voters. On the other side, people who are going so far in opposition to Trump, (pushing to) abolish ICE, they run the risk of turning off voters, too,” she says. “It is a problem on both sides that the issue has gotten so polarized.”

Polls show that immigration is weighing on voters’ minds. Asked by Gallup pollsters to name the most important problem facing the nation, 22% of those surveyed in July named immigration — the highest percentage since Gallup began asking the “most important problem” question 17 years ago. By August, immigration had slipped into second place behind “dissatisfaction with government” but remained among the most often-named problems.

Kamarck says it’s unlikely anyone who sees a campaign ad talking about immigration will change their minds.

“These ads tend to be watched by the already converted,” she says. “It’s very hard to get things in front of an audience that might actually be persuaded.”

But changing voters’ minds on the topic isn’t the goal, Ridout says.

“It is going to make that issue more salient, more top of the mind, when they’re deciding between the candidates,” he says. “It also might make some people angry enough, anxious enough, to actually turn out and vote on Election Day.”

The 2016 presidential race, he says, shows that it can be a successful strategy.