Skip to main content
ABC News
The Moneyball of Campaign Advertising (Part 1)

Readers of the book “Moneyball” will know the type. Grizzled advisers, veterans of many past contests, sit around the table. They can size up any prospect. They can immediately intuit that person’s strengths and weaknesses. They know what works, because they have done this so many times. They have stories of what happened 2 years ago or 4 years ago or 16 years ago. They remember the key moments — the crucial plays, the turning points. They know what it takes to win the championship.

But this is not baseball. It is a political campaign. The prospects are candidates. “What works” is not a big bat or a golden glove, it is a campaign message. The crucial moments happen when the campaign deploys an advertisement that the advisers crafted. The championship is simply the election.

The frustration that the focus of “Moneyball,” Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, felt when listening to his scouts talking about baseball players is the frustration that a political scientist feels when listening to many campaign consultants, journalists and political commentators talk about political advertising. In their telling, campaign ads win elections, and often in dramatic fashion. Consider this retrospective from strategists working for the 2010 campaign of Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada:

Our first ads hit just days after she [Sharron Angle] became the Republican nominee, taking her to task for advocating the elimination of Social Security. Over the next four months, our efforts to fill in the picture on Angle were unrelenting. We ran spots about her belief that it wasn’t a senator’s job to fight for jobs, for wanting to abolish the Department of Education, for voting to protect the privacy of sex offenders and for letting insurance companies deny coverage for cancer screening. The spots were anchored with her own words; we let voters see her for themselves. And the spots all led to the same conclusion — that Sharron Angle was too extreme. The ads proved devastating. Angle’s unfavorables increased more than 30 points in just two months.

Is this true? During the two months after Ms. Angle’s nomination on June 8, 2010, tracking polls showed that her standing never really changed, no matter how much her unfavorables increased. Mr. Reid’s standing did increase by 5 points — turning a narrow Angle lead into a tight race. So something happened. Was it Reid’s “devastating” ads? There is no way to know. A political consultant’s version of post hoc ergo propter hoc certainly is not enough.

So what do we know about campaign advertising? There is a better answer to this question. Just as Mr. Beane turned to math geeks, we can turn to a different species of geek: political scientists. Here are the lessons of their research about when campaign advertising does and does not matter.

1. Campaign ads matter more when the candidates are unfamiliar. When voters do not know much about candidates, their opinions will be weak or even nonexistent. Advertisements supporting or opposing unfamiliar candidates have the potential to be persuasive. This is one likely reason that the campaign spending of House challengers has a larger effect on election outcomes than the spending of House incumbents: challengers are less well known, and their advertising informs voters that they exist and might be palatable alternatives to incumbents.

This lesson may seem obvious, but it is easily forgotten. Deep into the 2008 Democratic primary, commentators were abuzz about whether Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “3 a.m. phone call” ad would change the race. A year later, commentators were still abuzz, albeit in weak-kneed passive-voice constructions:

… the ad was credited with helping Clinton regain momentum by amplifying doubts Democratic primary voters had about then-Sen. Obama’s preparedness for the office.

In reality, Mrs. Clinton and Barack Obama were familiar enough by late February 2008, when the ad first was broadcast, that it made little apparent difference in their poll numbers — even presuming that we could separate the effects of the ad from the effects of Mrs. Clinton’s winning the Texas and Ohio primaries soon after the ad was broadcast. This is a lesson to remember in 2012, when much ink will be spilled about the advertisements of Mr. Obama and his Republican opponent, who are precisely the types of candidates for whom advertising will matter the least. Pay attention to Congressional races instead.

2. Campaign ads matter more when a candidate can outspend the opponent. This simple fact sometimes gets lost because people fixate on the content of ads. But the volume of ads may matter more. Consider the 2000 presidential election. In the final two weeks of the campaign, residents in battleground state were twice as likely to see a Bush ad as a Gore ad. This cost Gore 4 points among uncommitted voters. The same thing happened in 2008, when Mr. Obama vastly outspent his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain. According to some research, in counties where Mr. Obama broadcast 2,000 more ads than Mr. McCain, he received about 1 percentage point more of the vote than John Kerry did in those same counties in 2004. (That a difference of 2,000 ads only appeared to earn Mr. Obama a single point is a testament to the limits of campaign advertising when most voters already have opinions about the candidates.) Of course, disparities like those between Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush, or Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain, do not come along in every presidential race. If Mr. Obama and the Republican nominee decline public financing in 2012, expect fewer disparities. But the ultimate point is this: if the 2012 race is close, do not pay attention to every subtle or even subliminal message in the ads. Just look to see who is spending more. Spending more does not guarantee a victory, but it is more revealing than endless speculation about whose message is more effective.

3. Campaign ads can matter, but not for long. The collaboration between Rick Perry’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign team and a group of four political scientist “eggheads” has made a lot of news. Rarely do campaign professionals consent to randomizing campaign activity to understand its impact, and they should be commended for it. The conditions in this study suggested that campaign ads could matter: Perry’s ads ran by themselves, without competing ads from his opponents. And indeed, the eggheads found that they did matter:

…the current week’s advertising raises Perry’s vote share by 4.73 percentage points per 1,000 GRPs.

This is a substantial effect, relative to many previous studies. But equally if not more important is what happened next:

… a week later, the effects of these ads … receded to −0.17 percentage points.

That is, the effects of television advertising appear to last no more than a week — a “rapid decay,” write the eggheads. A study of the 2000 presidential election finds the same decay. Campaigns may be wasting millions of dollars running ads weeks if not months before election day, only to have any effects of those ads dissipate. Case in point: the approximately $20 million that Bill Clinton spent in advertising between July 1995 and January 1996 — months before the 1996 election. The mastermind of this strategy, Dick Morris, wrote that “the key to Clinton’s victory was his early advertising.” But there is little evidence that the ads mattered at all.

In other words, much of what goes into modern campaign advertising may be futile. Will this “rapid decay” convince candidates to husband their resources and unleash a barrage of ads on Oct. 30, 2012? Probably not. Might early advertising be useful for raising money or generating media coverage or other things besides moving poll numbers? Possibly yes, although here again there is only a little evidence, if that. Nevertheless, the fact a few eggheads have so spectacularly called into question the monthslong television advertising campaign suggests how little may underlie the collected wisdom of the political cognoscenti.

Campaigns are spending a lot of money, but they are not playing Moneyball.

John Sides is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and is one of the authors of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.”