An estimated $3 billion will be spent nationally on advertising for this year’s presidential, congressional and gubernatorial races. And the race for the Maine Legislature appears it will be one of the most expensive ever, with many political action committees and out-of-state donors contributing to mailings and print, radio and television advertisements.
How is all the advertising money used most effectively? What should you know about the tactics campaigns use to persuade? Understanding certain strategies can help you be a more informed voter.
First, effective campaigns are going to great efforts to reach the few remaining undecided voters. Campaigns don’t have the resources to flood large areas with ads, and there’s no point trying to reach people who have already voted or decided how they will vote. So, more and more, campaigns are relying on technology to analyze people’s spending data and previous voting history to target advertisements to specific ZIP codes or, even, streets. Campaigns can often adapt their advertising to offer the message most appealing to the targeted voters.
But even if an ad reaches an undecided voter and plays to the person’s political beliefs, it has no influence if the person doesn’t vote. As many economists and campaign strategists know, it takes a lot of money to grow voter turnout.
What most effectively increases turnout? Door-to-door canvassing, according to political scientists Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber. By evaluating voter mobilization drives and then comparing the data to actual voting records, they discovered that one additional vote is cast for about every 14 people reached through canvassing. The personal conversations are more effective at getting people off the couch to vote than leaflets, direct mail, phone calls and TV ads.
However, TV ads may have a small effect on an overall election, and in close races they have the potential to tip the balance. That means when one campaign runs an ad, the other typically does, too, to avoid getting drowned out. For example, when Republican Kevin Raye ran a funny ad against Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, Michaud ran a funny TV ad in return. Neither candidate wants to get left behind. A 2010 study in American Politics Research backed up this idea, finding that a campaign with a 1,000-ad advantage in a given market, during the course of a campaign, increased votes by about 0.5 percent.
So, to maximize the small but potentially influential benefit of commercials, which types of ads are most effective? Even though a majority of people say they don’t like negative ads, they are exactly what appear to stick in people’s minds. A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Political Science found that negative ads — with ominous music and grainy pictures of opponents — increased vigilance and caused people to seek out more information. The value of negative ads is apparent in the presidential race, where President Barack Obama has spent 83 percent of his advertising dollars on negative ads, while Mitt Romney has spent 90 percent on negative ads, according to the Washington Post.
Positive messages, music and images tend to reinforce people’s beliefs, while negative messages are more memorable and tend to shake up partisan beliefs. That’s why effective campaigns tend to rely more on negative ads when they’re behind in a race. Hence, the National Republican Senatorial Committee funneling money into attack ads against independent Angus King to help trailing candidate Republican Charlie Summers. Leading candidates focus more on being reassuring.
Of course negative ads can backfire. Think of the attention given to Democrat Colleen Lachowicz, of Waterville, who is running to replace Republican Sen. Tom Martin of Benton. After the Maine Republican Party launched mailers and a website ridiculing her for comments she made under her World of Warcraft persona, she drew national publicity and donations and was added to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee’s list of most critical legislative races.
No advertising campaign can make up for bad candidates, of course. They still have to speak clearly and movingly and have a well-researched platform. But when targeted advertising has the capability to alter the result of a close election, don’t expect to see an end to the TV ads and mailers until after Nov. 6. Until then, recognize the tactics used — and why they’re used — and be aware of how they might influence your vote. You’ll only make a more educated decision on Election Day.