Campaign Ads and Campaign Cash

The 2018 election is easily going to be the most expensive midterm election in history. There are estimates that campaigns, parties, and interest groups will spend about $5.2 billion by the time it’s all over—about 35 percent more than was spent on the 2014 midterms.

Some of this money is spent on supplies, signs, the hiring of staff, and get-out-the-vote operations, but the vast majority goes toward advertising on television and social media. It is online and on the airwaves where much of the campaign is fought; this is how candidates and outside groups attempt to influence undecided voters and motivate supporters to go to the polls.

Since political advertising is the main tool of persuasion used by campaigns, it is important for students to learn to view political ads critically. There are a number of resources that allow students to learn about and research campaign ads.

C-SPAN Classroom has a number of excellent resources, and its lesson plan on What Makes a Good Campaign Ad—Advertisement Analysis is specifically about ads for the 2018 election. The lesson plan includes eight clips of current campaign ads with two professional campaign strategists, Steve McMahon (Democrat) and Todd Harris (Republican), analyzing why the ads are effective or ineffective. The lesson plan is well organized and the short clips are excellent; there’s even a graphic organizer to help students take notes and think about the ads they are watching.

Note: You must either register (for free) for a C-SPAN Classroom account or use the generic login (user name: students, password: C-SPANCLASSROOM).

Getting students to do their own research of campaign ads and cash will help them build their analytical capabilities. One idea is to assign pairs of students to different political races around the country, and have them analyze the candidates’ ads.

The best races for such an assignment are competitive races. The Cook Political Report assesses both House and Senate races and determines how likely each race is to go to one party or the other. Using The Cook Political Report’s House and Senate charts, select races in the “Toss-Up” or “Lean” categories; there should be plenty of ads for students to find, watch, and analyze. Once you assign students their races, make sure they do some background research on the candidates and the district or state before they watch the ads.

To find those ads, Google has a robust library of the political advertising that has appeared on their sites, both video and flat text versions. Students can search for ads using the name of the candidate or the sponsor (such as a specific party or political action committee [PAC]). Make sure that students are viewing ads from the 2018 cycle.

After they view their ads, have students consider the following:

  1. What is the main message of the ad?
  2. Would you consider this to be a positive or negative ad? Why?
  3. Who do you think is the target audience for this ad? Explain.
  4. Do you think this ad is effective? Why or why not?

You can have the pairs of students present to the class on the race they are covering, by sharing one of their ads and their analysis.

The other piece of the equation is the money that is spent on these ads (billions of dollars in this cycle alone). Who is contributing money to fund all these commercials?

There are four types of ads: (1) Those produced by the campaigns themselves, (2) those produced by an entity of a political party, (3) those produced by an interest group supporting or opposing a candidate, and (4) those produced by a PAC that does not have to report who funds it. The more groups that are involved in ad spending for a race, the more competitive that race probably is.

Source: The Tangled Web of Campaign Finance infographic, from The Sunlight Foundation

Students can research who is behind these ads. Google’s Transparency Report allows people to search out who has spent money on political ads, and on which specific races, on their sites. tracks overall contributions to candidates and parties. You can conduct searches by interest group, industry, PAC, or party. Students can use this site to research which industries and interest groups are contributing to campaigns.

Have students consider why various groups are so willing to spend money on races for the House or Senate.

  1. What do these groups get out of it?
  2. What industries and interests are most involved in campaign contributions?
  3. Which industries and interests are contributing more to Democrats? To Republicans?
  4. Are there any industries and interests that contribute a lot to both parties? Why would they do this?

In the end, have students consider the influence that money has over the political system. The Supreme Court has ruled that campaign contributions are the equivalent of speech and therefore are protected by the First Amendment. Do students agree with this assessment?


Image Credit: Political cartoon by Mike Keefe of, found at Denver Post’s Idea Log blog


Anger, Fear, and Polarization

Source: Gallup

The hate-based mass shooting in Pittsburgh and the attempted assassinations of prominent Democrats and media figures are among the most recent and startling signs that the divides in the country are getting deeper and more dangerous. This post is intended to help teachers and students explore the sharp political divides that exist in the United States. It is also important for teachers to help students discuss the tragedy in Pittsburgh; fellow Teaching for Democracy Alliance members, Facing History and Ourselves and PBS Newshour, shared some resources and questions to help teachers do just that.

Evidence of Anger, Fear, and Polarization

Source: Pew Research Center

Several polls conducted by Gallup and the Pew Research Center in recent years indicate that political divisions in the country are serious and wide.

The trends in the above poll show that partisanship has been increasing for decades, with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, briefly uniting the country.

This second poll indicates that Americans’ worries about what the other party will do is a major factor in determining which party they support. In fact, both Democrats and Republicans said they are more opposed to the other party than they are supportive of their own.

This last poll indicates that both Democrats and Republicans hold negative attitudes, including fear, anger, and frustration. More highly engaged Republicans and Democrats felt these emotions even more acutely.

Taken together, these polls tell a story of a divided nation in which those on different sides of the political divide have negative views of each other—views such as fear and anger that can make political discourse difficult, if not impossible.

Polarization in Context

Political polarization seems to be everywhere. Americans are currently engaged in debates about protests during the national anthem, about the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements, and even about our choices in entertainment. Two news items from NPR—an article from January that looks at the state of American politics and an article from earlier this month that discusses partisan gaps on important political and policy issues—will help you and your students investigate polarization.

Discussion Questions

  1. What evidence of political polarization, if any, have you seen in your social and family network?
  2. Do you see evidence of political polarization in the media? In political ads?
  3. Do you think political polarization is a problem? Why or why not?
  4. What, if anything, should be done about political polarization?
  5. Do you think that one political party is more to blame for partisanship and polarization than the other? Explain your answer. What evidence supports your position?

Finally, share this article from The Atlantic about various proposed reforms to lessen or eliminate partisanship and polarization. Then, discuss which of these proposals, if any, students would support.

Extension Activity

  1. Investigate partisanship in your state or town. Look at election results in primaries and general elections in the last several elections (going back 15-20 years).
    • What trends do you see?
    • Are candidates from the two major parties growing further apart?
    • Is there a divide between different parts of your state or congressional district?
    • How has spending on advertising for Senate and House races in your state/district changed in the last 20 years?
  2. Write a short report or newspaper article on the basis of your class findings to help explain the impact of polarization on your community. To enrich the reporting, consider having students conduct interviews about political polarization. As an example, listen to this story about differences between generations in Orange County, California.

Additional Discussion Resources


Image Credit: Berkley Political Review


Election Integrity or Voter Suppression?

One of the most fundamental rights of citizens in a representative democracy is the right to vote—the right to decide who should govern and give input on key policy decisions. In recent years, conservative policymakers have raised concerns over voter fraud and its potential to influence the outcome of elections. President Donald Trump continues to claim that massive voter fraud took place during the 2016 election, but there is currently no evidence to support that claim. In fact, the president established a now-disbanded federal voter fraud commission, but that commission could not find any evidence that voter fraud played a significant role in the outcome of any state or national election.

However, policymakers in several states continue to consider and implement policies aimed at reducing or eliminating voter fraud. In this post, we examine voting rights controversies in North Dakota and Georgia and offer some resources and discussion questions to help teachers and students navigate the difficult and divisive topic of election integrity and voter suppression.

Source: Tyler Behm/Reuters

North Dakota

In North Dakota, there is a hotly contested Senate race between incumbent Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, and her Republican challenger, Representative Kevin Cramer. A court case is currently brewing that could affect the ability of almost 70,000 of the state’s residents to cast ballots. The state passed a law requiring voters to show an ID that lists a street address, meaning that a voter cannot have a P.O. box as his or her primary address. This affects many of the state’s rural residents and has a disproportionate impact on American Indians. This New York Times article offers details on the law, the court battle, and the projected outcome of the court’s decision on the 2018 election.


Georgia is currently a focal p

oint of the voting rights debate because of two controversial policies. One policy, known as voter purges, is the practice of removing inactive voters’ names from voter rolls in order to limit fraud. The goal is typically to ensure that the deceased and those who have moved to other voting precincts do not maintain active registration, so no one can show up to vote in their place. The second policy, known as exact match, is meant to ensure that the people who register to vote are who they say they are. If names or addresses are misspelled or do not perfectly match on voter registration documents, those registrations are held up or must be re-submitted.

This NPR article offers background on the controversies in Georgia, and these two editorials—one from The Economist and one from National Review—offer competing views on the issue.


  1. After examining these and other resources, do you believe voter fraud is an issue that government should be doing more to address?
  2. If stricter voting laws block legitimate, eligible voters from casting their ballots, are these laws worth enacting?
  3. What are the strongest arguments made by supporters and opponents of stricter voting laws?
  4. How should your state balance the need to maintain election security with the goal of making sure that all eligible voters are able to vote?

See our Controversial Issues in the News update on Voter ID Laws for more details and discussion questions.

Additional Resources


Should the Voting Age Be Lowered to 16?

While many Americans are concerned about low rates of voter turnout, particularly among young people, there is growing evidence that voter turnout is not the only element of American democracy that shows signs of unhealthy behavior.

Yoni Appelbaum argues in The Atlantic that “Americans Aren’t Practicing Democracy Anymore.” Appelbaum writes that democracy is an “acquired habit” that develops slowly over time through repetition. Democracy was once the “shared religion of people who otherwise had little in common.” Americans historically were very connected with local and national civic associations, but fewer and fewer people are members of such groups nowadays. The result is “catastrophic,” with greater disdain for democratic institutions than ever before.

So what can be done to strengthen participatory democracy? Appelbaum suggests starting with young people, by strengthening the civic association they all have access to—student government.

It means carving out the time, space, and resources for students to govern themselves. One recent study found that, holding all else equal, greater knowledge of civics among high-school seniors correlated with a 2 percent greater likelihood of voting in a presidential election eight years later. Active participation in extracurricular activities, however, correlated with a 141 percent increase.

For this to be effective, the administrators and teachers at the school need to take self-government by students seriously, so that they can see the impacts and consequences of their actions.

Another idea is to lower the voting age to 16 so that young people have a stake in democratic decisions before they graduate high school. The Washington, D.C., City Council is currently considering such a proposal, and it is expected to pass. This would allow 16-year-olds to vote in all elections, including federal elections.

Have your students consider the proposal: Should the voting age be lowered to 16 throughout the country?

Have them read some articles and opinion pieces on both sides of the issue:

Have students read the articles (and others if you would like them to do some research). Choose a discussion format and ask them:

  1. Which arguments do you find most persuasive, and why? Are there any arguments that you think are relevant that have not been raised?
  2. What does it mean to be a responsible voter?
  3. Thinking about all of the arguments, do you think that the voting age should be lowered to 16 in the United States for all elections?

Do students believe that if they obtained the right to vote at a younger age, they would be more engaged in the political process? Would they participate in the future by doing more than “just” voting?

Although most students in high school cannot vote, is it possible to get someone to vote for them? The Proxy Project gives students the tools to get someone who otherwise probably would not vote to go to the polls and vote in their place. Teens find someone, usually a relative, who usually would not vote, and they both sign up as a team and download a proxy to fill out. After the vote, the proxy is uploaded to show that the adult voted in place of the teen.

This is one way to help people who are too young to vote stay engaged in the election, and we would love to hear about and share others. If you have any creative ideas about getting students more engaged in civic life, please tell us in the comments!


What’s at Stake in the Senate Races?

Source: Real Clear Politics

What’s Up?

  • There are 35 Senate seats up for grabs in 2018 (including two—Minnesota and Mississippi—that are up for special election).
  • Of those 35 seats, 26 of them are currently held by Democrats.

The Current Situation 

  • Republicans currently hold the majority (51 seats) in the Senate; Democrats hold 47 seats and independents hold two seats.
  • To take over the Senate majority, Democrats must gain an additional two seats (and keep all currently held seats) in 2018.
  • It is not going to be easy for Democrats to gain the majority. According to John Dinan, a professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University, the Senate election picture is “much more favorable for Republicans.”
  • Democrats are defending 26 Senate seats that are up for election; Republicans are defending only nine.
  • Democrats are defending seats in 10 states that supported President Donald Trump over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016 (Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin).
  • Republicans are defending a seat in only one state carried by Secretary Clinton in 2016 (Nevada).
  • Democrats are defending seats in 13 states that have a Republican governor (Florida, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin).
  • Republicans are not defending any Senate seats in states with a Democrat as governor.

Why Do We Care? 

  • The Senate considers the ratification of treaties (which requires a two-thirds vote) and presidential appointments for such positions as federal judgeships, ambassadorships, and Cabinet offices (all of which require a majority vote for approval).
  • The Constitution gives the Senate the “sole Power to try all Impeachments.” In other words, the Senate, by a two-thirds vote, determines whether to convict and remove from office any impeached official.
  • Committee assignments are important for each senator’s legislative agenda; party leaders organize and shape the composition of the committees.
  • The Senate majority leader holds scheduling responsibilities, and has the power to have the Senate consider a particular matter. After the Morning Hour (a daily period for routine morning business), the Senate normally resumes working on any prior business. However, this business can be set aside (temporarily or indefinitely) to focus on other business presented by the majority leader (in the form of motions or unanimous consent requests).

What Should We Keep an Eye On? 

According to Real Clear Politics, the toss-up Senate races in 2018 include:

  • Arizona [Open (R)]: Rep. Martha McSally (R) vs. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D)
  • Florida [D]: incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D) vs. Gov. Rick Scott (R)
  • Indiana [D]: incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) vs. former state Rep. Mike Braun (R)
  • Missouri [D]: incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) vs. state AG Josh Hawley (R)
  • Montana [D]: incumbent Sen. Jon Tester (D) vs. state auditor Matt Rosendale (R)
  • Nevada [R]: incumbent Sen. Dean Heller (R) vs. Rep. Jacky Rosen (D)

Other races to watch include:

  • Texas [R]: incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R) vs. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D)
  • West Virginia [D]: incumbent Sen. Joe Manchin (D) vs. state AG Patrick Morrisey (R)
  • Mississippi [Special (R)]: incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) vs. state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R) and former Rep. Mike Espy (D)
  • Tennessee [Open (R)]: Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) vs. former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D)

Resources for Further Exploration 

Let’s Discuss

  • Given what we know about how the Senate functions, why is holding the majority important?
  • Moving into the future, what specific impacts could result if Republicans remain the majority?
  • What could be the impacts if Democrats move into the majority?
  • What specific issues or legislation may be particularly impacted by the majority being in the hands of Republicans or Democrats?


The Kavanaugh Question

Although Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment was ultimately successful, the question remains of whether or not it will be an instance of winning the battle but losing the war with regard to the 2018 midterm elections.

Some commentators have suggested that had Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation failed, it might have sparked a backlash among voters in both parties who did not see the accusations against him as credible or did not believe the handling of those allegations was fair. Some commentators have also argued that despite Justice Kavanaugh’s successful confirmation, such a backlash could still be in play and could compromise Democrats’ gains in the midterms.

On the other hand, some observers have suggested that Democrats’ anger over Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation could be the very thing that galvanizes voters to choose Democratic candidates and leads to an even larger “Blue Wave.”


Recent polls have shown an overall decline in the margin for Democrats, coinciding almost exactly with the start of the Kavanaugh hearings. In terms of the likelihood of retaking the two chambers of Congress, Democrats have seen an overall decline of 2-3 percent for the House of Representatives and 13-14 percent for the Senate. However, according to, Democrats still maintain a 77.7 percent chance of retaking the House. The party’s chance of retaking the Senate, which most observers believed to be a long shot to begin with, is 18.5 percent.


However, a CNN poll conducted after the hearings and completed immediately following Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation showed Democrats with a 13 percent lead over Republicans among likely voters on a generic ballot.

Many questions still surround the midterms and the effects of the Kavanaugh hearings. Will Democrats’ anger fuel bigger turnout for the midterms? Has there in fact been a decline in support for Democrats? If so, is it a backlash to the Kavanaugh hearings or is it an example of voters “coming home” as Election Day draws closer?

Discussion and Exploration Questions

  1. Ask students to research how their senators voted on Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation and what explanation, if any, the senators gave for their choices. Hold a discussion or a debate on whether students agree or disagree with the reasoning of their senators.
  2. Ask students to research how their senators voted on Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation and whether or not one of their senators is up for reelection in 2018. If one of their senators is up for reelection, students should research how he/she and his/her opponents have discussed the Kavanaugh hearings. Can they find areas where decisions may have been politically motivated? How have constituents responded to the senator’s statements on the hearings?
  3. Justice Kavanaugh was confirmed with a 50-48 vote that largely followed party lines, with the exception of Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, voting “present” (not “yes” or “no”) and Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., voting “yes.” Students should research their choices and motives. Have a discussion about how upcoming elections can affect the decisions of policymakers. Do students think this is a problem or in keeping with the idea of representative government?
  4. The 50-48 vote in favor of Justice Kavanaugh was the smallest margin of confirmation for a Supreme Court justice in 137 years. (In 1881, Justice Stanley Matthews was confirmed by a vote of 24-23.) What does this say about the state of government? Do students believe people are as divided as the government seems to be? What do they believe is the cause of this partisanship?


Hacking and the Midterms

Source: The Orange County Register

As we continue to debate the role that hacking played in the 2016 election, government officials and others are grappling with the

future of American elections,especially next month’s midterm elections. People who are concerned with the long-term civic and political health of the United States understand that free and fair elections are a fundamental component of our democracy, and they are worried that a loss of trust in the electoral process could do serious damage to the country. Below, we suggest a few resources and discussion questions to help students think about the hacking of U.S. elections, and what to do about it.

When discussing hacking and other attempts to influence elections in ways that are less than ethical or transparent, terminology can be confusing. Remind students that although the term “hacking” is often used to describe efforts to influence the election, other activities (such as intentionally spreading false stories and creating online identities to sow discord and distrust) are part of the issue as well.

  1. Review with students some facts about the hacking and interference during the 2016 presidential election. For an overview, see this CNN round-up.
  2. Ask students: How does the idea that American elections are being tampered with make you feel about voting and government?
    • Are they sad? Angry?
    • Have they become less trustful of government and elections?
    • What do they think it does to the country if citizens are less trustful of the electoral process?
  3. Watch this seven-minute CBS News story about the hacking and what to do about it.
  4. Beginning at the video’s 4:25 mark, there is a brief discussion about the possible responses to interference in U.S. elections. They mention:
    • Creating a federal cybersecurity agency
    • Passing tighter online privacy laws at the state or federal level
    • Better self-policing by social media companies
  5. Ask students to discuss whether these ideas seem sufficient to address the problem and to brainstorm other possible responses. Some ideas might include:
    • Stiff penalties, such as sanctions or even military action, against countries that interfere with U.S. elections
    • Voting infrastructure updates, such as improved voting machines
    • Regulations on social media to make the creation of fake accounts more difficult
  6. Ask students to read this article in The Guardianwhich explores different ways in which individuals and groups could interfere with the midterm elections.
  7. Ask students to discuss how high a priority it should be to shore up election security.
  8. Ask students: What do you think would happen, and what should happen, if the United States holds an election and people don’t believe the results?

If you’ve discussed election hacking and interference with your students, what did you talk about? What were their ideas and responses? Feel free to share any resources you used in the comments below!


Youth Voting: Is It the Issues?

Why do young people vote at lower rates than other groups? There are a number of possible reasons. Today, we will look at one possible factor: that the political arena does not address the concerns of young voters. Below, you’ll find a discussion guide and a few resources to help students think about the decision to vote—or not to vote.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau
  • Ask students: If you were to vote in the upcoming election, what would be the most important issues that would determine who you would support? You may want to divide students into smaller groups to come up with issues that can then be shared with the class as a whole. Write down some of the issues that they offer, and place them into categories (Education/Health Care/etc.).


  • Either post or hand out the responses to this Gallup poll from September 2018, which asked “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?”

    Source: Gallup


  • Ask students to compare their responses with those of the poll’s respondents. Do they see any differences? If so, what are they? Why do they think those differences exist?


  • Have students list issues that they see various campaigns addressing. They should think about the issues that they hear politicians talking about, as well as issues raised in campaign advertisements on television and social media.


  • Ask students to compare their concerns with the issues that the campaigns are addressing. Are campaigns addressing the issues they care most about? If not, askthem why they think that is. Ask if they believe this is a factor in why young people vote at lower rates than older voters.


  • Have students look at the graph below or read this Washington Post article. Have them explain what the graph demonstrates (that the actual turnout rate of young voters is lower than that of older voters, and that young voters make up a much smaller portion of the electorate than older voters). Ask them if this graph explains to some extent why politicians do not address the issues that young people are concerned about.

    Source: Harvard IOP Pill


As a follow-up, have students think about ways to get campaigns to address the issues they care about. Remind them that when it comes to young people and voting, youth turnout can be a “chicken or the egg” riddle: Do politicians ignore the issues that matter to young people because young people don’t vote? Or do young people not vote because politicians ignore the issues that matter to them?