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Political Science and Advertising in 2012

Dino Christenson

Among a host of unprecedented features, the 2012 election will be studied to understand the impact of unlimited fundraising by outside groups (Super PACs), not least of which will be their expenditures on campaign advertisements. In all, over one million campaign advertisements were aired in the 2012 presidential election on local broadcast and cable television. That marks a 40% increase over the number of ads aired in 2008, prior to the arrival of Super PACs. The combined cost of ads for this election comes out to well over $860 million.

In terms of the candidates, Obama’s campaign aired more ads than Romney’s at a rate of over 2.5 to 1, but this lead was mitigated by Super PAC expenditures for Romney. Including these groups meant that pro-Romney causes outspent pro-Obama causes by $75 million. The pro-Romney group American Crossroads, for example, spent over $20 million in Virginia and Florida, and nearly that much in Ohio. Thus, while Obama’s victory seems to suggest a limit to the power of Super PACs, it does not suggest the end of money in politics. On the contrary, the 2012 election makes abundantly clear that both fundraising and ad expenditures are playing increasingly central roles in the modern campaign.

What’s not clear is the effect of this onslaught of advertisements. Should we be afraid that the amount of money spent on ads, especially by unaccountable outside groups, will have deleterious effects on the state of our democracy? Will we be or have we already been duped by these ads? In evaluating these concerns, there are a few general findings from political science to keep in mind:

Tuning out. Not everybody is a political junky, nor does everybody have the same opportunity to watch campaign ads. Many live in states that are ignored by campaigns because of their less-competitive partisan composition. In 2012, media markets in the battleground states of Florida, Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, Iowa, Nevada, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire got the lion’s share of campaign ads, which meant that folks in less-competitive states—e.g., Montana and Washington—got very few, if any, ads. Moreover, not everybody pays attention to these ads, even if they are in a campaign-targeted area. In particular, people less concerned with politics in general tend to avoid campaign ads by switching the channel, muting the ad, or fast-forwarding through it.

The persuadable few. Of those who watch the ad, some are more responsive to them than others. That is, we do not all respond in the same way to campaign ads. Specifically, those with weaker partisan identification are easier to persuade. These folks often have less-constrained political ideologies, less political awareness, and less interest in politics, which means that those that are persuadable are also the most conflicted, and, as noted above, most likely to avoid the ads in the first place. Furthermore, these people, when they do matter electorally (as in battleground states) are most likely to receive contrary signals; that is, messages from both campaigns. Thus, we might worry were one campaign to be particularly well-financed and another broke, such that the persuadable segment of the electorate only received ads from one side, but such is unlikely in today’s presidential political landscape.

Selective exposure. Ads are not the only source of campaign information. Those interested enough in politics will seek out related information from media outlets that correspond with their political predispositions. This means that those who have some interest in politics are unlikely to be exposed to the campaigns solely via advertisements. Rather, they get information from their preferred sources, which generally serve to reinforce their prior beliefs rather than change them as a result of new campaign events.

Timing is everything. The effect of ads is often temporary, which means that ads aired closer to the election are more likely to be at the forefront of people’s thoughts when they enter the voting booth, as opposed to ads aired much earlier in the campaign. However, early ads often set the tempo of the election and create the baseline from which candidates are judged later. For example, if candidates fail to respond to an attack quickly, doing so later may be too late to make up for the damage done, especially after the news media has helped disseminate related information. Thus, candidates must balance their needs for descriptive and reactive ads in the early and mid-stages of the campaign, with the inevitable ad blitz in the final weeks leading up to Election Day. This puts a heavy burden on candidates to consistently bring in campaign donations.

Not all bad. Though we may get tired of seeing them, especially if we have the (mis)fortune of living in a battleground state, there is strong evidence that we learn from campaign ads. Notably, there is even some evidence that attack ads are particularly good at conveying meaningful political information. We often learn about the unpopular policy positions from these types of ads, for example. Such evidence is a relief, given that attack ads dominated the 2012 election. About 85% of Obama’s ad expenditures and 91% of Romney’s were spent on negative advertising.

In the end, campaigns—try as they might—have no secret serum in the form of ads to move the electorate. We are a heterogeneous lot, particularly when it comes to our exposure and response to political campaigns. Depending on where we live, some of us will be more electorally meaningful and see more ads amidst our favorite shows. However, only a small portion of those will be persuaded by ads, and, in today’s presidential campaign landscape, even this group will have had exposure to messages from both sides—and learned something from them. While the media is fond of grandiose statements of campaign mind-control, the findings above from political science should serve to assuage some of the fears regarding the influence of ads, even if the sheer number of them in presidential elections does not appear to be slowing down anytime soon.

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