The second and final televised debate between the two presidential candidates of the United States is now over. Will the Trump and Biden clans resume the clash through (negative) advertising? Not sure, since research shows the relative effectiveness of this means of propaganda.
The state of Iowa often votes on the safe side, the one that makes the presidents of the United States: George W. Bush in 2004, Barack Obama the next two elections and, yes, Donald Trump in 2016.
This time the incumbent president and his Democratic rival are neck and neck in the Midwestern state of 3.1 million people. The Republican leader visited it last week in an attempt to boost his troops there. He hadn’t been there since the state caucus earlier this year.
The new rally drew only a thousand supporters onto the tarmac at Des Moines Airport. On their way to this location, the troops could pass a billboard denigrating their meeting, considering it to be a “super-spread event” of the pandemic virus.
According to the latest accounts from the beginning of the month, Joe Biden’s clan had spent about 3 million on advertising in Ohio and that of Donald Trump, 6.8 million. Since then, the Republican camp has practically stopped investing in advertising in the region. A TV campaign planned for Iowa and neighboring Ohio has been called off. The expense, estimated at 2.5 million, was presented as unnecessary since “the president is confident in his chances of winning.”
We can doubt it. We can also say to ourselves: what is the point, since, according to academic research, election advertising, and even negative campaigns (such as the anti-Trump charges of Project Lincoln), ultimately do not persuade many people. Or, to put it another way: advertising doesn’t win elections. It is the mirror of politics.
“The big conclusion from my own research is that political advertising works like commercial advertising. Just because a brand spends ten times as much on advertising doesn’t mean it’s going to increase those sales so much. Likewise, in politics, if a candidate spends more, he will not necessarily attract more votes, “summarized in an interview with the Duty Jay Newell, professor at the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communications at Iowa State University.
Put the package
His research focuses on media saturation and advertising. Professor Newell has documented the use and fallout of advertising campaigns during the notorious Iowa caucuses, which for both parties ushered in the long and complex process of nominating presidential candidates. Aspirants are therefore stepping up (46.3 million just in TV commercials in 2016) and often start a year ahead to dominate this early indicator of primary trends.
“My surveys show that people are not significantly influenced by the amounts spent and that this certainly does not succeed in making them prefer one candidate over another,” says Newell, who used the 2016 caucuses in particular to his work published in the Journal of Political Marketing in 2018. For example, he established that candidate Hillary Clinton had spent 2.3 million more on advertising than Bernie Sanders, her opponent in the Democratic primary in Iowa, while she only defeated him by a weak margin (49.9% of the vote against 49.6%).
Another researcher, Alexander Coppock of Yale University, basically comes to the same conclusion: Election advertising persuades no one, or very little. He and his colleagues measured his persuasiveness by analyzing the reception of around 50 advertisements from some 34,000 voters in 2016. The research has just been published in the journal Science Advances.
“We have discovered that the impact of ads is small, without being zero,” he wrote to Duty, by pointing out like Mr. Newell that disinformation online and on social networks is an entirely different problem. “On average, a single ad seems to displace the voting preference by 0.7 percentage point (so less than 1 percentage point). We find that this average effect is very similar for different types of ads and different types of people. So the bottom line is not that political ads don’t matter, but that they don’t matter. “
What’s the point ?
So why persist in these expenses which end up costing big candy?
“I guess the weak effect of ads is that both camps are doing ads,” says Professor Coppock. If a camp stopped, I think it would be bad for them. We find that at the margin the effects are still very small, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the effect of an entire ad campaign is small. If Biden had never run any ads in this campaign, I guess he wouldn’t be leading 10 percentage points before Election Day. “
The next two weeks are unlikely to be decisive for the outcome of the vote
His colleague from Iowa this time points out a big difference between commercial advertising and political propaganda. “In politics, the winner takes everything,” he says. There is no advantage in coming second in an election. Product sellers may well be satisfied with a second place. Candidates therefore tend to spend and over-spend even if the expense does not produce much effect. “
He adds that, in this presidential campaign, the game looks pretty much done and that future commercials are unlikely to change that much. “The next two weeks are unlikely to be decisive for the outcome of the vote,” said Jay Newell.