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The Moneyball of Campaign Advertising (Part 2)

[For the first post in this two-part series, see here.]

Campaign consultants and political commentators love nothing more than to dissect the messages of campaign advertisements. Again and again, we are told which commercials are “powerful” or “game changers” or “turning points.” Everyone knows about the ads that have decided presidential elections: the “daisy ad,” “Morning in America,” the Willie Horton ad, the various Swift Boat ads, and so on and on.

Or, perhaps we should say: everyone “knows.” The power attributed to specific campaign ads is vastly exaggerated. As in “Moneyball,” there is much accumulated lore, but little hard evidence. Here are some things for which we do have evidence, thanks to research in political and social science.

4. Negative ads work, except when they don’t. It is virtually a truism that negative advertisements make the candidate being attacked look bad, and the candidate doing the attacking look good. In 2008, Mark Penn hewed close to this conventional wisdom, asserting that despite research showing that voters dislike negativity, “clever” negative ads work. He wrote, “When reality and research differ, it is the research that is wrong.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t really know the reality. The most comprehensive meta-analysis of research into negative advertising found no conclusive evidence that they work:

All told, the research literature does not bear out the idea that negative campaigning is an effective means of winning votes, even though it tends to be more memorable and stimulate knowledge about the campaign.

Take the “daisy ad.” Perhaps the most infamous negative presidential ad of all time didn’t appear to move either Lyndon B. Johnson’s or Barry Goldwater’s poll numbers. And don’t be fooled by accounts suggesting that a negative ad had some subtle effect on a race — “changed the narrative” or another similarly squishy phrase. Votes, not narratives, are what wins elections.

5. Campaign ads don’t really affect turnout. Negative advertising often elicits loud lamentations. Commentators bemoan a lack of civility and state that voters are sure to be so turned off that some will even stay home on Election Day. These stories are ubiquitous. And although this piece of conventional wisdom may be changing, it’s not changing fast enough.

The meta-analysis cited above summarizes the voluminous research on the connection between negative campaigning and turnout. The authors write:

The research literature provides no general support for the hypothesis that negative political campaigning depresses voter turnout. If anything, negative campaigning more frequently appears to have a slight mobilizing effect.

Indeed, it’s quite easy to see why negative advertising might mobilize voters. As some research suggests, negative ads might be particularly effective at conveying the “threat” the other candidate presents, as well as the competitiveness of the election — both of which could stimulate turnout.

Ultimately, most advertising, whether negative or positive, doesn’t affect turnout much. Although nonpartisan get-out-the-vote television ads can increase turnout, actual candidate advertising does not. For example, in the 2000 election, the volume of ads shown in each media market during the closing weeks of the campaign bore little relationship to turnout in those markets. Even “targeting” those ads at particular groups of voters doesn’t seem to make a difference. Ads that focus on the issues arguably important to a particular group of voters don’t seem to make them vote at higher rates, according to some research conducted by Andrew Karch and myself.

Ultimately, the forms of campaign activity that get out the vote tend to involve personal interactions with voters. Television ads, broadcast to mass audiences in an impersonal fashion, are less potent mobilizers.

6. There is no secret sauce. Really. But what of the myriad other aspects of television advertising besides its tone? Its focus on policy issues vs. the candidate’s biography. Whether the candidate appears in the ad. What other pictures or visual images are used. Whether the ad is in color or black and white. What kind of music is playing. Etc. There is no end of advice given about these aspects. Candidates are told to start off with biographical ads to “introduce themselves” to voters. Candidates parse the benefits of a male voiceover versus a female voiceover. All of this fretting over the subtleties of ads presumes that there is some magical combination of ingredients — a secret sauce — that renders them persuasive.

If there is such a sauce, no one has discovered it. There is simply little evidence that any of these subtleties actually change people’s minds, or that some combination of features makes ads into “game changers.” Moreover, even if there was, there is substantial reason to doubt that such ads would influence an election’s actual outcome. Why? Because as soon as the special sauce was discovered, other candidates would use it, too, thereby neutralizing its effect. And even if the ads did have some effect, it would be difficult to identify it amid the effects of other factors — economic, political, strategic — that influence elections.

To be sure, these difficulties may one day be surmounted, as researchers develop better tools for examining the effects of specific political ads. (Here is one promising example.) But in the meantime, be skeptical of claims that certain kinds of ads “work.” Be particularly skeptical when such claims are being peddled by the people who earn a commission on every ad they run, who naturally have an incentive to overstate the effects of ads and thus their own contribution to the election’s outcome. Making and broadcasting these ads may cost campaigns a lot of money. But it doesn’t mean they’re 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.”