The poetry of American politics is now written in emojis and hashtags. In North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, the emojis are wavy American flags and the hashtags are Western North Carolina towns.
The animated star-spangled banners belong to Madison Cawthorn, the Republican candidate, who uses the icons in subtle national calls for financial support to galvanize potential donors who don’t even live in his district. That red, white, and blue might work particularly well among the GOP donor pool. A 2007 Pew Research Center report showed that 73% of Republicans say they display the flag at home, in their office, or on their car, while only 55% of Democrats do.
In contrast, the Facebook ads Democrat Moe Davis directs to voters within his district come complete with hashtags denoting local cities and photo backdrops of Western North Carolina’s rolling blue mountains.
Although one might expect the 37-year age gap between the congressional candidates to be reflected in their ad campaigns on Facebook, each candidate employs their own savvy strategy to target their intended audience — one national, one local.
The two candidates primarily focus their advertising on Facebook, investing much more money on the platform than Google and Youtube. Davis is also running ads on WLOS-TV. At the time of publishing, Cawthorn had spent $163,756 on Facebook, and Davis had spent $36,816.
Cawthorn: A National Approach
The moment President Donald Trump phoned Cawthorn from Air Force One to call his primary win “beautiful” was the moment Cawthorn launched his pro-Trump brand as a valiant warrior against “radical leftists.”
“Pro-Trump, Pro-Life, Pro-Gun, Pro-Law Enforcement,” read the caption of one ad posted in August.
Cawthorn’s appeal to Republicans on a broader, national level is evident in his villainization of high-profile Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez make more appearances in Cawthorn’s Facebook ads than Davis does. One ad pictures Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez with Rep. Ilhan Omar, all covered in a monochromatic blood-red hue while posing adjacent to a photo of Mount Rushmore. “Add your name to fight back against the mob!” the caption reads.
“Your support will help me combat Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and AOC,” reads the caption of another ad.
Cawthorn’s Facebook ads didn’t mention his opponent by name until September. However, he recently launched a website and Facebook community (currently four followers strong) called Moe Taxes, dedicated solely to attacking Davis.
Cawthorn’s strategy to garner support on a national level is underscored by Facebook ads utilizing buzzwords and phrases like “radical leftists,” “left-wing mob,” and “the socialist Left.” This language further polarizes voters, signals his alignment with the Republican agenda, and makes his ads generalizable to a broad audience beyond Western North Carolina.
What’s the point of focusing on voters that won’t even have Cawthorn’s name on their ballot? Money. Like a signature at the end of a document, nearly all of Cawthorn’s ads on Facebook have a bold box in either red, white, or blue that says “DONATE NOW.”
That strategy seems to be working. Compared with Davis, a greater proportion of Cawthorn’s individual contributions come from out-of-state, according to financial records from the Federal Election Commission analyzed by Open Secrets.
These advertising tactics and fundraising successes are in conflict with how Cawthorn has said congressional elections should run.
“I believe I should only be able to fundraise inside of District 11. That would mean that I owe my successes only to the people that I represent,” he said at a Sept. 9 debate.
Davis: A Local Approach
Davis is keeping it local, often addressing Western North Carolina voters directly in ad videos or captions.
Unlike the all-encompassing American flag that Cawthorn garnishes his ads with, Davis applies hashtags, used to increase engagement and draw in audiences of interest, for specific counties in District 11.
“#asheville #brevardnc #hendersonvillenc #wnc #nc #waynesvillenc #sylvanc #cullowhee #franklinnc,” were among some hashtags Davis used in ads where he talked about legalizing marijana and making Western North Carolina the “epicenter for alternative energy.”
The tagged locales paint a clear picture of Davis’s targeted region. He’s focused on the “#blueridgemountains” area.
Those hallmark mountains also appear as Davis’s background for ads, further signaling his focus on Western North Carolina.
In a Facebook ad that ran regularly from August through September, Davis flaunted a poll conducted by his campaign that put the two in a “DEAD HEAT!”
The graphic shows Davis and his campaign logo, which features mountains, with 40% of the vote and Cawthorn, his name in plain black text, with 42% of the vote.
In the caption, Davis distilled the choice down to “a 25-year veteran,” or a “25-year old QAnon believer.”
On Oct. 8, Davis’s active Facebook ads were almost exclusively shown in North Carolina. Many of Cawthorn’s active ad campaigns were primarily viewed in California, Texas, and Florida, while several were primarily viewed in North Carolina, according to the Facebook Ad Library.
The local focus that anchors the content and targeting of Davis’s Facebook ads extends through his campaign. At the Sept. 9 debate, he made it clear he’s staying in the district.
“Since the first of the year, I’ve left the district for one night. My opponent’s been jetting around the country with the Trump kids and up in Washington,” said Davis.