Ads Don’t Matter in Presidential Elections

John SidesJohn Sides is a very smart political science professor at George Washington University. But sometimes, he’s kind of boring. Like today, when he was over at Wonk Blog and explained, Four Reasons It’s Hard to Campaign Your Way to the Presidency. I have to assume that he was trying to counter the idea that the well-run campaign is the one that finishes first. No one I read makes that argument. In anything, I personally go too far the other direction: the only thing that matters are the fundamentals. I’ll admit that there are people who who hold clearly incorrect opinions on how a president gets elected. But are we really going to spend all of our time trying to correct fools who will never learn anyway? Does Dr. Sides think the likes of Cokie Roberts reads Wonk Blog?

There is one argument that I have heard from time to time over the last six months. It goes like this: Obama won the election because he spent money early to define Romney as an out of touch plutocrat and Romney was never able to get past that label. Sides counters this by noting that Obama only really pushed that narrative for two weeks in July. I would go further: people already thought that Romney was an out of touch plutocrat. If the ads worked, it was only because they reminded people why they hated Romney. There is a tendency among political pundits to assume that the people are empty vessels just waiting to be filled up with politician talking points. It doesn’t take much time listening to Romney himself to decide that he is an out of touch plutocrat:

Sides’ four reasons are not that interesting. They all come down to the same basic thing: commercials are just not that useful in presidential campaigns. It is one thing for corporate money to flood into California and confuse the population about GMO labeling. In that case, there is either going to be labeling or there isn’t. With a presidential campaign, one of the guys is going to become president. And for most people, it isn’t going to matter all that much which—or at least, that’s what they think until they look back on two years with the Republican president. And that gets to Sides’ best observation: there are ads on both sides pushing against each other. It is hard to get much advantage in such a situation.

The only thing that happened in the 2012 presidential campaign that had a notable effect outside the economic fundamentals was the Obama get out the vote (GOTV) operation. Sides didn’t discuss this, because it wasn’t inside the context of his article. But it is part of the campaign. And I care about it, because it goes along with my guiding philosophy of elections: people almost always vote the same and the only difference is who decides to vote. The fact that Obama had an highly effective GOTV effort probably did earn him an few million extra votes. Was that enough to swing the election? No. But under the right circumstances, it could have been. What’s more, it is something that will continue to help liberals. Even if the Republicans get very good at GOTV, most of their backers already vote. They don’t have the potential to greatly improve their numbers.

As to Sides’ general argument: I agree. Advertising doesn’t mean that much in most elections. But pundits will continue to cover elections as though they do. It is fun to cover and it is fun to read (or watch).

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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