Do TV Commercials Really Work in a Presidential Race Like This?

Elections
Yard signs supporting President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden outside of an early voting site at the Fairfax County Government Center in Fairfax, Va., September 18, 2020. (Al Drago/Reuters)

Below, Rich reports that the Trump team “believes it is investing shrewdly in door-to-door canvassing and phone calls, in contrast to Democrats who are spending on TV to the exclusion of traditional GOTV operations.”

We will see, but if there’s one kind of campaign-analysis article that I think is not terribly helpful or relevant this year, it’s the “this presidential candidate is spending more on television ads than the other one.” Right now, Joe Biden is vastly outspending Donald Trump on television advertising, particularly in the top markets of Tampa, Orlando, Miami, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Harrisburg.

But . . . do voters make their decisions for president based upon TV ads? Even if some small segment of independent or non-affiliated voters usually does in a normal political environment . . . do voters draw conclusions about these two guys based upon television ads? Trump is on television all the time. He’s not exactly shy. And Joe Biden has been around forever. Americans of all political stripes are really, really familiar with them. Do we really think they’ll change their mind because of another serving of stock footage of solar panels or a gravelly voiced announcer narrating an attack ad?

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Hillary Clinton’s campaign spent way more on television advertising — and on overall campaign spending as well, and we all remember how that one turned out. Clinton’s campaign spent $768 million while Trump’s spent $398 million.

In House, Senate, and gubernatorial races, I could see television advertising having an impact. Most voters walk around with much less knowledge of who represents them at the state and local level. In December 2018, Johns Hopkins University found that one-third of Americans could not name their governor, and a survey from last year found 40 percent of Americans could not name their congressman. One third of Californians could identify a picture of Gavin Newsom as their governor.

Because campaigns are wary of in-person contact with voters during the pandemic, they’re throwing more resources into television ads. If Biden wins, a lot of television-ad makers will want to take credit for the victory, deserved or not.

And if Biden loses . . . can we stop treating TV-ad spending as a useful metric in evaluating which campaign is doing a better job?

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