Tag Archives: campaign advertising

No, Wait! This Is Really A Game-Changer! I Mean It!

Yesterday’s campaign events and related media coverage perfectly illustrate the points I’ve been making in my last several posts regarding the relative importance of campaigns and the underlying fundamentals as influences on presidential election outcomes.  First, in this New Yorker article, Jill Lepore buys into the standard media narrative which sees campaigns in terms of the daily duel of messaging, advertising and related tactics.  Not surprisingly, Lepore believes the recent efforts by the Obama campaign to highlight Romney’s Bain years and income tax statements have boxed Mitt in:  “On this turn, though, Romney has been outmaneuvered. His opponents in the primaries made it impossible for him to run on his record as governor of Massachusetts, and Obama’s campaign has made it very difficult for him to run on his record at Bain. All the same, the game is only just out of the box. Romney’s looking at an empty map and holding a fistful of pins. It’s his move.”

Of course, with four years of a stagnant economy, the real game is not “just out of the box” – but to Lepore, it’s all about the daily tactics, not the fundamentals.  And, in this context, Romney’s move was to create his own campaign ad based on an excerpt from Obama’s remarks at a campaign stop in Virginia. In his speech, Obama noted: “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”  This, for Romney, was Obama’s Bain moment – the excerpted comments fed into the frame of Obama as an anti-business apologist for big government. Predictably, Romney’s tactic set off a war of words among campaign surrogates as both sides sought to explain what Obama really meant.  (Believe me, it is hilarious to be on twitter when one of these campaign food fights break out.  The distortions and silliness of the back-and-forth tweeting is something to behold.)

Perhaps sensing vulnerability on the issue (at least that’s what the pundits told me!), the Obama campaign finally came back with this rebuttal ad that is now running in so-called battleground states:

The fact that the Obama administration was forced to bring out the Big Gun himself – the President talking directly to the camera – set the pundits a-twitter once more about how he was on the defensive and whether the “you didn’t build that” comment was driving down his support in the polls.

I hope you see the point. In the span of less than a month we’ve seen at least two incidents that received heavy media focus and that were, in the eyes of some pundits, potentially “game changing” moments – Romney’s Bain experience/income tax and now Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment. For the media obsessed with the daily give-and-take on the campaign trail, these were important stories. Viewed in isolation from a partisan slant, it is easy to see why either one might change the campaign narrative. But for one of the dwindling number of voters who perhaps has not made up her mind, what you see is not a single ad or event, but instead dueling narratives composed of different ads that present contrasting takes on the these matters. That’s why any single ad, or related issue, usually isn’t a game-changing moment. Not surprisingly, despite – because of? – weeks of breathless media coverage,  the two candidates remain virtually deadlocked in national polls.

This is partly because, as this Pew survey indicates, most voters already feel like they know enough about the candidates to make up their mind.   Even on the controversial issues like Romney’s experience at Bain, or his income taxes, only about a third of respondents want more information. That’s true of independents as well.

When it comes to the President, Pew finds that “90% say they already pretty much know what they need to know about him; just 8% say they need to learn more.”  Given these numbers, there’s not a lot of maneuvering room for the candidates to change voters’ impressions, although Romney probably has a bit more potential flexibility– for better or for worse.

If the dueling ad campaigns are having any impact, it may be to drive the two candidates’ negative ratings higher. According to this MSNBC survey, Obama has his worst ratings in this category since he took office, with 32% of respondents rating their feelings toward him as “very negative.”  Romney’s “very negative” rating has also reached its high point to date, at 24%. When Pew asked,  “Has what you have you seen, read, or heard in the past couple weeks about [Mitt Romney or Barack Obama] and his campaign for president given you a more favorable impression of [either Romney or Obama]  or a less favorable impression”,  43%  chose “less favorable” for Romney, and 44% did so for Obama.  Faced with clashing negative ads, it appears that some voters are reacting by saying “a pox on both your houses.”

This likely won’t be the last time I caution you not overreact to the latest partisan-driven claim that we are experiencing a “game changing” moment.  Indeed, I could probably write a version of this post every day for the next three-plus months.  (You’d like that, wouldn’t you?)  But maybe the point is more easily grasped by considering previous “gaffes” that at least some pundits thought might cost either one of the candidates the election. Remember Romney declaring he likes to “fire” people, and that he pals around with plenty of NASCAR “owners”, and that his wife drives a few Cadillacs, and that we have no need for “more firemen, more policemen, more teachers”?  More recently, there was his initial description of the insurance mandate trigger as a “penalty”, not a “tax”. The Wall St. Journal editors were sure that would be a game changer.

Of course, Obama has had his own share of rhetorical gaffes, including his declaration that “the private sector is doing fine.”  Chris Cilliza wrote an entire column on how that would impact the election. Obama took heat as well for his description of “Polish death camps” (oops, there goes the Polish vote!)  And now the “you didn’t build that” declaration.

Yes, these were mistakes that were almost immediately incorporated into opposition campaign ads.  But did they change the course of the election?  I don’t think so.  And neither should you – no matter what the pundits declare to the contrary.

A Fable: What Kim, Kris and Kanye Can Teach Us About Campaign Advertising

Kevin Drum’s evident confusion regarding how advertising works in political campaigns got me thinking that there has to be a simple way to convey why political scientists generally discount the impact of individual campaign ads on election results.  So, in the teaching spirit, let me try to put it in story form, using characters with which most Americans are familiar.  (Many thanks to Pete Cahill for providing the illustrative links.) Now, keep in mind that this is a fictional story designed by me to illustrate some basic political science findings.   The lessons are real – but the story is not.  Got that?  (I don’t want to deal with any lawyer types.) Ok, now pay attention.

Let’s start with the typical American voter – Kim Kardashian.

Like most Americans, Kim wants what is best for the country: a good reality show, unlimited clothing allowance, extended hours for dance clubs and, most important, money to pay for this along with all the free publicity she can get.

Now, assume there are two candidates vying for her heart….er….vote.  There’s the Republican, professional basketball player Kris Humphries, and the Democrat, recording artist Kanye West.  Both make the case that if selected they can get her all the free pub she could ever need and keep her living in the style to which she is accustomed.  As evidence, Humphries releases the following campaign ad, a compilation of his on-court highlights.

With a skill set like this, he argues, he will be a perennial all-star who will attract mega-endorsement money and, not insignificantly, a bushel of publicity.  Who wouldn’t want to hang with this guy?  This is an effective highlight reel, and Humphries makes sure to play it wherever Kim “America” hangs out.  The media takes note of this, and agrees that Kris has all the “momentum” in this campaign due to his skilled campaign tactics.

But wait!  Kanye is no fool.  He puts together his  own campaign video highlighting his knowledge of “power”, part of an all-out publicity effort designed to familiarize Kim America with his impressive track  record of chart-topping hip-hop hits and music awards .  With these awards, of course, comes a very lucrative recording career.

Note two important aspects of these “campaign ads”.  First, Kris focuses on his record as a basketball player, and Kanye on his hip-hop accomplishments.  That is, neither attempts to create an artificial version of himself by highlighting nonexistent accomplishments – Kris doesn’t pretend to sing and Kanye avoids dunking highlights.   There’s a reality out there – their actual career records – that serves as a limiting factor on what they can put in their ads. Second, both campaign spots are designed to activate latent predispositions within Kim America.  That is, they don’t try to persuade her to adopt the lifestyle of a convent nun who has taken a vow of poverty.  They aren’t trying to change her views – to make her think differently – so much as they are framing their own record in a way that is designed to show how it addresses Kim’s existing attitudes. Kim, they know, craves free pub and a certain lifestyle – and so they sell themselves accordingly.  Again, reality – Kim’s preexisting views and needs – constrains what they can do with their campaign advertising.

But our candidates don’t stop there. Kanye decides that in addition to highlighting his own accomplishments, it will help if he can denigrate Kris’.  So he puts  together a negative ad highlighting Humphries’ failures – here Dwight Howard eats Kris’ lunch with a monster block  and turns it into two points for the Magic:

Now let’s add a fourth character to our drama: Kay-Drum.  He’s a hip-hop pundit who strongly supports West in this bid for Kim America’s vote.  When he sees West’s negative ad, he describes it as “devastating” to Humphries’ chances.  The media takes note – Kay-Drum is an expert, after all, and he is quoted everywhere.  Poor Kris – he claims that this ad misrepresents his record and besides, the score was 2-2 at the time!  Too bad! The media decides Kris is a whiner.

But Humphries has his own attack machine, and he runs an ad revealing that President Obama, of all people, called Kanye West a jackass for interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at a video awards show.  When Kay-Drum sees this ad, however, rather than changing his views, he instead describes Humphries’ negative ad as “an act of moral depravity” by a “desperate” candidate who knows he can’t win Kim’s heart, er, vote.   The media, carefully reporting how the “experts” are responding, decide that Kris’ tactics aren’t working, and that Kanye has run the more effective campaign.

In the end, much to Kay-Drum’s delight, Kim ends up “voting” for Kanye, and they live out their lives as a happy, slightly hefty couple.  Humphries, meanwhile, ends up in Brooklyn on a loser team and fades into obscurity.   (Reminder:  this is a fable designed to teach – these events and characterizations are made up!)

What made the difference?  Why did Kim choose Kanye?  In the media post-mortem, leading journalists and experts like Kay-Drum make it clear that the more skilled advertising campaign run by Kanye made all the difference.  Specifically, many scribes cite the campaign ad in which Dwight Howard “Swiftboated” Kris’ attempted dunk as the turning point in the campaign.   It goes down in campaign lore alongside the Daisy and the Willie Horton ads and reinforces the media’s preoccupation with campaign strategy and tactics.

Now here’s the kicker: political scientists – long before any of the campaign ads came out, including the celebrated Howard “Swiftboat” rejection – predicted that Kim would, in the end, choose Kanye over Kris.  How did they know this?  By ignoring the campaign, and focusing on the fundamentals.  First, they started with the simple fact that Kim America’s vote would likely depend on one factor: which candidate could provide her with her the resources necessary to maintain a lavish lifestyle and, not incidentally, receive lots of pub. True, she talked about love and Kanye’s hidden talents and how Kris getting rejected really opened her eyes to his shortcomings, and clothing accessories too, but all of that, basically, was a rationalization of the reasons that really drove her choice: money and face time on TMZ.  Political scientists, having already constructed a simple formula based on previous campaigns that estimated the likely career earnings of a hip-hop star versus that of a basketball player, simply added a few variables to account for Kris’ and Kanye’s particular careers (any drug use, love of guns, weak knees, etc.) and came up with their prediction that Kanye was going to easily best Kris in the earnings and free pub categories, and that Kim would choose accordingly.

Note that in constructing this model, they didn’t worry that the campaign advertisements might skew the results.  Why were they so confident?  Because those ads couldn’t create an alternative universe – they could only frame the existing one.   By creating measures of that reality – the earning potential of the two candidates – and assuming both sides would effectively  frame their own earning potential, and denigrate the other person’s – political scientists assumed that the independent impact of the ads would largely cancel each other out, and that the final result would  reflect the fundamental earning disparity between Kris and Kanye.  A key assumption here is that both candidates run highly effective campaigns within the constraints imposed by reality.  A second key assumption is that in a high-information environment, with lots of alternative sources by which to evaluate both candidates’ claims, Kim America would recognize the earning disparity between Kris and Kanye.  This doesn’t mean she had to understand the economic intricacies of either profession – she just had to be reasonably confident that she knew which person would earn more. And in fact, by hanging out with friends at the clubs, and talking to members of her retinue and Khloe and Bruce and her hairdresser, and hobnobbing with Jay-Z and Beyoncé and Snooki, in my completely hypothetical universe she was able to come to a reasonably well-informed assessment.

And the rest is made-up history.  Don’t they look happy?  And well fed?

That my friends, is how political science works!

Any questions?