ELECTIONATE SEPTEMBER 10, 2012
With the memory of the conventions fading and initial signs pointing toward an Obama bounce, attention is already turning to Romney’s ability to mount a comeback. In the minds of many, Team Romney’s financial advantage tops the list of reasons for Republican optimism. Indeed, the Romney campaign and its allied super PACs are poised to spend millions on a historic advertising campaign that some argue could bury Obama and swing undecided voters toward Romney. And yet ...
There are good reasons to doubt whether Romney will get his money’s worth. Most of Romney’s ads are geared toward attacking the president’s performance, but Obama has been president for four years and voters have a settled impression of his character and record. The stability of Obama’s approval ratings are highly consistent with an electorate that has largely made up its mind about the President. A recent poll even shows that the public knows it’s made up its mind: According to Pew Research, 90 percent of registered voters say they already know what they need to know about Obama.
The stability of the race over the last three months confirms that advertisements are unlikely to make a difference. Voters in the battleground states have already weathered a full presidential campaign’s worth of advertisements—hundreds of millions of dollars in the battleground states—but there was little evidence of a substantial shift in either direction. To the extent that there was any shift, it came in June and early July when Obama made gains after switching to an overwhelmingly negative advertising strategy, even though Team Romney has outspent Team Obama by two-to-one over the last two months. Unless the Romney campaign has a fundamentally new pitch, it’s hard to see why voters that have already heard these advertisements will now suddenly find them persuasive.
The fact that Team Romney is poised to spend even more money doesn’t undermine this analysis. GOP-aligned Super PACs aired uncontested advertisements in Michigan, eastern Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New Mexico, but only Wisconsin moved into the toss-up column after Paul Ryan was selected as Romney’s running mate. The Republican National Convention could be reinterpreted as a three hour, nationally televised infomercial, and yet Romney didn’t receive any bounce at all. And while the science of ad spending is somewhat unscientific, there is probably a point of diminishing returns, even if the exact slope of the diminishing curve is uncertain. Team Romney has already been airing advertisements at or above saturation levels for months. The rule-of-thumb is that 1,000 gross-rating-points (GRP) of advertisements are enough to get your message out to voters, but Team Romney has routinely exceeded 2,500 GRP in critical markets in August. For comparison, Palm Beach received 3,200 GRP from Bush’s campaign in the final week of the 2000 presidential campaign.
Even if Romney can leverage his resources effectively, research by political scientists seems to confirm that a large advantage in ad spending only produces minor gains in a presidential election contest, probably because voters will learn quite a bit about the candidates independent from the airwaves. On average, Michael Franz and Travis Ridout found that 1,000 additional advertisements by Obama produced a statistically significant but minor (.5 percent) improvement in Obama's performance. Similarly, Darren Shaw found that a 1000 GRP shift resulted in an additional .2 points in a given media market in 2004. That's not much, but it could have flipped a few states in an election as close as 2000. And in some areas with large numbers of persuadable voters, the influence of uncontested ads could be even greater than the national average. That said, Obama could backload ad spending, which would probably minimize the consequences of getting outspent, since Sasha Issenberg has reported that "eggheads" researching on behalf of Rick Perry--of all people--found that the effects of campaign advertisements tend to fade relatively quickly (if you've enjoyed this article, just go ahead and buy The Victory Lab).
There’s no question that Romney’s ad spending advantage is indeed an advantage, it just might not be a very big one. But the assessment of Romney's ad spending advantage is incomplete without considering Obama's ground game. Part of the reason why Romney has such a large advantage in ad spending is because the Obama campaign has decided to invest heavily in building and cultivating their ground operation. According to The Washington Post, Obama and Democratic field operatives outnumber their Republican counterparts by more than two-to-one and the most recent ABC/Washington Post poll found that a far greater share of voters has been contacted by the Obama campaign. Political Scientists have found that voter contact is one of the most effective forms of political persuasion, with experiments by Gerber and Green finding that voters turned out at an 8.7 percent higher rate than a control group. In a high-turnout presidential election year, the increase in turnout will not be nearly as large as it was in an off-year, local election. Even so, direct contact is a demonstrably effective means to increase turnout.
For whatever reason, the Romney campaign has decided not to match Obama’s investments on the ground. The previously mentioned Washington Post article found Republican officials arguing that the Obama campaign was wasting their money. Given that Republicans had the resources necessary to make similar investments but elected not do so, I assume that the gap in spending on the ground reflects a deliberate calculation that it's not worth the cost to Republicans. After all, the law of diminishing returns applies on the ground as well as the air: initial field offices in Cleveland and Orlando will be able to reach out to many more voters than the thirtieth field offices in Zanesvile and Ocala. And it’s not entirely clear whether paid staffers and infrastructure are the most important metric, given that they’ll be supplemented and outnumbered by an army of free volunteers, and that there's presumably a qualitative element to the ground game, as well.
But the respective spending strategies might not just be a Moneyball-esque calculation about the relative effectiveness of air versus ground spending, but instead a cold reflection on the strategic imperatives facing each campaign. Obama holds a clear lead among registered voters and an unusually large gap between likely and registered voters has been responsible for a close race. If Obama’s ground game could narrow the gap, Romney’s deficit would become daunting. But unlike Obama, Romney probably won’t win on turnout alone. He trails among likely voters, can't and won't count on the wide gap between likely and registered voters persisting, and demographics don’t give Romney an unusual large untapped reservoir of potential new voters, so closing the gap will require him to persuade undecided voters, presumably with a barrage of campaign advertisements. So the Obama campaign has two routes to victory that appear consistent with their spending strategy: invest millions in a potential demographic trump card, while spending enough on the airwaves to keep Romney from sweeping undecided voters. And conversely, winning undecided voters is prerequisite to a Romney victory, so they’ve piled money onto the airwaves.
There's no way to be sure whether Obama will benefit from superior turnout, let alone whether it would overwhelm Romney's advantage on the air. But there's not much cause to presume that Romney's air campaign will pulverize Obama into defeat, either. The historical effects of ad spending are relatively meager, views of the president are deeply entrenched, and voters have already been exposed to a full presidential campaign's worth of advertisements. Even in the plausibly competitive states where Team Romney ran uncontested advertisements, millions of dollars do not appear to have put the states into play. Given that Team Obama maintains a lead after being outspent by a two-to-one margin for two months, there is no reason to assume that a deluge of advertisements will hand Romney the lead in the race's final hours.