Biden eliminated attack ads during Trump’s hospital stay. Trump’s campaign saw no need for a softer tone.

After President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis was revealed October 2, Joe Biden’s campaign swiftly pulled down all of the attack ads it had placed on Facebook.

Trump’s campaign didn’t follow suit — a Syracuse University data project reveals Trump’s campaign deploying attack ads at relatively steady rates before and after the diagnosis.

“If the rule is that you don’t attack the guy in the hospital, why would the President pull down his own ads?” Trump campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh said in an email Tuesday to CBS News. 

The Illuminating Project at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies uses a combination of human review and machine learning to analyze campaign ads on Facebook. It evaluates ads as “civil” or “uncivil” in tone, and separately at the message being conveyed – is it an “attack ad,” for example, or advocating for an issue. 

In the three days before the president’s diagnosis, the Syracuse project rated roughly 2% of Biden’s ads as uncivil in tone, compared to between 3% and 10% for Mr. Trump’s. None of Biden’s ads were uncivil beginning on Friday, October 2 – the Trump campaign’s uncivil ads spiked on that same day  – to nearly 25% of all his campaign’s Facebook ads. That proportion dropped over the weekend, but remained higher than earlier in the week.

A somewhat similar pattern held true for attack ads, which are focused on criticizing an opponent or other figure, regardless of whether they are “using insulting (uncivil) language,” according to Brian McKernan, an assistant professor at Syracuse. 

Biden’s campaign produced a spike in attack ads — nearly 60% of those placed — on September 30, the day after the first presidential debate. They dropped to just over 4% on October 2 and disappeared after that. 

Trump’s attack ads peaked for the week on October 1 at nearly 64% of all Facebook placements, but otherwise remained nearly level, ranging between 34% and 44%.

“The thing is that Biden throughout the campaign is usually way more civil than uncivil,” McKernan said, noting that on most days about 90% of Biden’s ads are rated civil. 

The campaign resumed posting attack ads after Mr. Trump concluded his hospitalization at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The Biden campaign did not reply to an email seeking comment. 

A two-week snapshot shows the Trump campaign consistently devoting a higher proportion of its Facebook ad spending on ads rated uncivil.

The Trump campaign also outpaced Biden on the proportion of its Facebook budget used for attack ad spending in 10 of the 14 days preceding the end of his hospitalization.

During the president’s hospital stay, he wasn’t only on the attack. His campaign ads also included some that highlighted his hospital stay. These were classified as civil in tone, with a message type called “persona,” meaning it focuses on the candidate’s “character, personality, style and/or values.”

That Mr. Trump, the incumbent, is more reliant on attacks than his challenger is one of the many reasons that the 2020 campaign season is unique, according to University of Michigan professor Stuart Soroka. 

“It’s a little bit of an outlier because normally the incumbent is getting attacked more than they are doing the attacking, typically across political campaigns, not just in the U.S. but elsewhere. The incumbent is defending their record, the challenger is attacking their record, so this is one of many ways in which the Trump campaign is anomalous,” said Soroka, author of the book, “Negativity in Democratic Politics: Causes and Consequences.” 

He added that the pandemic and other factors adding to uncertainty may also be impacting the effectiveness of negative advertising during this campaign season, in a way that could benefit Biden. Soroka said one reason negative advertising is often effective is that it stands out in an overall “information environment that is positive.” But amid a pandemic, social unrest and a recession, “We’re in a negative information environment right now, not just related to the campaign, but the world generally.”

“And that might mean that negative information stands out less. What might start standing out to us is positive information,” Soroka said.

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