WHY LIMITED SUCCESS FOR CAMPAIGN SPENDING

ABSTRACT: So why were all the outside money and all the advertising it bought less effective than was anticipated in the recent election? First, the great bulk of the outside money was spent on advertising, largely negative advertising. Voters were overwhelmed and simply tuned them out. The advertising lost effectiveness and experienced diminishing returns. Second, the huge amounts of money and advertising drew lots of attention. So fact checkers were very active and the mainstream media became active in covering the money, the advertising, and the fact checking. This gave voters information that may have led them to question or resist the messages of the ads.

Third, the big money and advertising appears to have been less effective than good old fashioned grassroots organizing. Finally, Democratic candidates and messages appear to have resonated better with voters than Republican candidates and messages. Despite the outside money’s lack of success in electing desired candidates, I doubt that it will go away. My next post will examine likely future effects and what can be done to better monitor and control potential negative impacts.

 FULL POST: So why were all the outside money and all the advertising it bought less effective than was anticipated – and than hoped for by those paying for it – in electing specific candidates in the recent election? I think there are four major reasons.

First, the great bulk of the outside money was spent on advertising, largely negative advertising. And it bought lots of ads. But voters know that ads are marketing and hype, and that their goal is often to deceive and obfuscate (especially negative ads) rather than to inform. [1] Also, voters were overwhelmed by the din and repetition of all the ads and simply tuned them out. [2] Advertising markets where the Presidential race or other races were competitive were literally saturated; all the available air time was purchased for political ads. In short, because there was so much advertising, it lost its effectiveness and experienced diminishing returns. [3]

Second, the huge amounts of money and advertising drew lots of attention. So fact checkers were very active in analyzing the accuracy of the ads. And the mainstream media became active in covering the money, the advertising, and the fact checking. This included reporting on who had funded the ads or that the actual funders were veiled in secrecy. This coverage of the ads, their accuracy and their funding, gave voters information that may have led them to question or resist the messages of the ads. Although negative advertising has historically depressed voter turnout, that did not happen in this election. Perhaps there was an actual voter backlash against the negative advertising.

Third, the big money and advertising appears to have been less effective than good old fashioned grassroots organizing – voter outreach, identification, and get out the vote efforts. The ground game appears to have been more effective at producing votes than the airwaves. [4] In addition, efforts to make it harder to vote or to suppress voting appear to have generated a backlash in some places that resulted in high voter turnout that blunted the impact of negative advertising.

Finally, Democratic candidates and messages appear to have resonated better with voters than Republican candidates and messages. The extreme positions and statements of some Republicans, particularly Tea Party types, generally did not sit well with voters, both within their states or districts and beyond. And the advertising blitz could not overcome these differences between the parties.

Despite the outside money’s lack of success in electing desired candidates, it did have significant impacts. (See 11/14/12 post.) I doubt that it will go away, and there are good reasons to be concerned about big money in political campaigns. My next post will examine likely future effects and what can be done to better monitor and control potential negative impacts.


[1]       Carroll, J., 10/29/12, “America’s kidnapped politics,” The Boston Globe

[2]       New York Times Editorial, 11/10/12, “A landslide loss for big money,” The New York Times

[3]       New York Times Editorial, 10/7/12, “The cacophony of money,” The New York Times

[4]      New York Times Editorial, 11/10/12, see above

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