Do Campaign Ads Work?

Here’s a question Mitt Romney might do well to ask himself.

Politicians and scholars alike debate the efficacy of high-dollar ad buys, and the importance of tone (positive or negative?). In fact, it’s a subject we’ve discussed here before, because to date the academy’s reached no resolution on the question of whether negative campaigning is a net benefit to any given candidate. The reason why is probably painfully obvious: voters respond to the gestalt campaign, rather than its individual features, and all of the factors that make negative campaigning “succeed” or “fail” in a given race can’t be summarized or reduced to the graphs and tables political scientists are so fond of. I’m sure I’ve said this before, too, but quantitative political science just doesn’t work. At least, not in all cases.

We can, however, draw isolated conclusions from individual races. And those are:

  • Positive campaigning works for Newt Gingrich: last night, the troubled speaker went to his greatest debate in recent memory (say some), or a lackluster performance falling well short of what he “needed” to redeem himself (say others). Regardless, the night went better for him than the debate where, after his victory in South Carolina, substantially powered by a commitment to avoid negative campaigninghe tried to stand toe-to-toe with Mitt Romney‘s withering personal attacks.
  • Negative campaigning works against Newt Gingrich: nevertheless (like the women of Rohan), those who refuse to wield the sword may still die upon it. Mitt Romney’s “unprecedented” and vicious attack ads against Gingrich, pre-Florida, worked, and brought to a swift close the speaker’s late surge. Whether Romney paid a price for that tactic remains to be seen.

I hesitate to draw a general conclusion from this evidence, though, because Newt Gingrich is in many ways an exceptional politician, burdened by a uniquely sordid past, but benefited by an equally unique record of political success. If some conclusion can be drawn, it’s that those who fear to live in glass houses should not throw stones. The candidate’s pre-ad blitz persona matters: weaknesses can be expanded by negative campaigning, but perhaps they can’t be created.

Similarly, Mitt Romney seems to prove, on a daily basis, that aggressive campaigning simply cannot manufacture largescale popular appeal. After running far and away the most expensive of the Republican campaigns, Romney’s managed to buy an election he can barely hold onto, against a stream of exceedingly weak challengers, but not one that he can win. Mitt’s the political equivalent of a 7-11: he never closes.

We should absolutely worry about the distorting effect of money on politics. In fact, a speaker’s ability to modulate the volume of his voice so as drown out other participants in the “marketplace of ideas” is the greatest threat to the philosophical underpinnings of the First Amendment, and one we truly can’t afford to ignore. The “search for truth” rationale only works if powerful participants can’t bury that truth under a mountain of money [see two similar posts on the subject]. But Romney might prove that individual candidates (and perhaps individual issues) have a hard cap, after which money spent fails to alter public perception, whether due to countervailing pressures (a skeptical news media), or because candidate image ossifies after a certain amount of time spent in public life. It’s hard to say from just one sample. But in the era of the Super-PAC, we can at least be confident that more data points will emerge in time.

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One comment

  1. “Mitt’s the political equivalent of a 7-11: he never closes.”

    Haha! Best. Line. Ever.

    I wonder if all the arguments over Citizens United could have contributed to create that hard cap you talk about? If people are more aware of the increased role of money in politics, that in itself might cause them to be more sceptical of the ads.

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