Were Obama’s Early Ads Really the Game-changer?

by John Sides on December 30, 2012 · 7 comments

in Campaigns and elections

I have a new post at 538 on this question.  Based on some initial descriptive evidence from The Gamble, Lynn Vavreck and I are skeptical.  We will do more to nail this down in the book, but at this point we can discern no shift in assessments of Romney that coincided with Obama’s ad blitz in May and June.  And the fact that the effects of ads decay rapidly suggests that, even if such a shift had taken place, it wouldn’t have persisted until November.

Politico’s Glenn Thrush objects:


Phil Klinkner notes that if Obama’s early ads were somehow preventing movement toward Romney, there perhaps should have been movement toward Romney where there were no Obama ads—i.e., in the non-battleground states.  But there wasn’t, as my post shows.

However, it’s important to be clear on the underlying counterfactual to help clarify causal claims, like Thrush’s claim that Obama’s early ads caused the polls to remain more stable than they would otherwise.  I don’t know what Thrush’s precise counterfactual is, but here are two possibilities and my view of them:

1) What if Romney and his allies had advertised at the same level, but Obama had run no ads at all?  If that had happened, I would have expected Romney to gain in the polls, given the large number of ads he was running.  My 538 post acknowledged this, at least implicitly, by noting the likely folly of unilateral disarmament.

2) But Counterfactual #1 isn’t really what the conventional wisdom about Obama’s early ads is suggesting.  The CW is that it was important that Obama spent much more than Romney and his allies in May and June.  But why was spending much more necessary to keep the polls from moving toward Romney?  What about this Counterfactual #2: what if Obama had merely matched Romney and his allies ad for ad, rather than airing more ads?

My sense, based on the scholarly evidence, is that the polls also would have been fairly stable.  Just matching the opponent’s ad volume should neutralize its impact.  There’s no reason to think that Romney’s ads were so much more effective than Obama’s that Obama had to air more ads in sheer numbers simply to compensate.

Moreover, there’s no reason to think that Obama needed to compensate for other bad news during May and June—from his “private sector is doing fine” comment or whatever.  If the news had been that bad, we should have seen his poll numbers decline outside the battleground states or nationally, and they didn’t.  So Obama and Romney would have likely neutralized each other as long as Obama had merely kept pace.

Again, the point here is not that ads never matter.  It’s just unlikely that Obama’s early ad binge was that effective.  The polls didn’t change, as you might expect if these ads were so numerous or so devastating.  And there’s not a good reason, in my view, to think that polls would have changed absent this binge, as long as Obama was airing ads at a level comparable to Romney’s.

{ 7 comments }

Jim Webb December 30, 2012 at 4:24 pm

I think that this is missing the major questions: Did Obama’s early ad blitz prevent Romney from “cleaning up” his image after the brutal primary season? Did it reinforce notions (first introduced by Gingrich) of Romney as a corporate raider? Did Romney’s lack of “soft” biographical ads during that time period allow Obama to fill the “blank slate” of Romney with the idea of a plutocrat instead of a technocrat (as Romney would have preferred)? And as for the idea that “there’s not a good reason … to think that polls would have changed absent this binge,” I would look at the RCP average of the Obama-McCain horse race after the Obama/Clinton primary ended; Obama’s lead ballooned over the course of June from under 1 point to almost 7 points. Romney was not able to recover nearly as much ground after Santorum and Gingrich left the race. While the Obama/Priorities ad blitz may or may not have been responsible for it, I think that it is a mistake to assume that the horse-race ought to remain stable as the challenger begins to mount a general election campaign (although Romney’s decision to leave “Moderate Mitt” until the debates could also be responsible for his lack of significant closing in the polls).

John Sides December 30, 2012 at 5:50 pm

So if these Obama ads kept Romney from gaining ground after he sewed up the nomination, why wasn’t he gaining ground in states where Obama wasn’t running ads?

DavidT January 1, 2013 at 1:14 am

The fact that Obama was running ads attacking Romney on the Bain issue was widely reported by the national media and may therefore have concentrated the attention of voters on that issue even in states where the ads were not running.

Just a completely unproven theory, of course.

John Sides January 1, 2013 at 12:40 pm

DavidT: There was indeed a bunch of news coverage of the Bain issue. What’s interesting, then, is that the polls were so stable in both the battleground and non-battleground states. It suggests that neither the ads nor the news coverage of Bain changed opinions.

DavidT January 1, 2013 at 7:44 pm

But again the question is whether without the ads–and the media coverage, which was in part prompted by the ads–Romney would actually have gained, given (1) the fading of the divisive primaries, and (2) the not-very-good economic news (unemployment actually edged up from 8.1. to 8.2 percent in May, and stayed there in June).

John Sides January 1, 2013 at 8:51 pm

DavidT: That’s a crucial counterfactual, for sure. We’ll do our best to shed some light.

andrew long December 30, 2012 at 10:13 pm

“Moreover, there’s no reason to think that Obama needed to compensate for other bad news during May and June—from his “private sector is doing fine” comment or whatever.”

The “bad news” I think the Obama team felt they had to counteract on a permanent basis was the background radiation of the poor economy. Even though the political science was consistent and fairly clear about Obama’s slim advantage on the fundamentals, especially as the year progressed, it was almost definitely too slim for them to feel they could count on. And with terrible BLS numbers in April, May, and June, and Europe on the edge of implosion, they likely felt they had to act immediately, and go big with it. Maybe they overdid it, but if I had had their resources, I probably would have done the same, especially considering that when you’re laying the foundation for your general election campaign offense, the audience is the media and elites as much as it is swing-state voters. The sheer magnitude of the Plutocrat Pummeling became its own story quite early on, and ensured that the narrative broke through the cable chatter onto the evening news, and down to local broadcasts all over the country.

In any event, the Heartless Plutocrat narrative was absolutely essential in that it provided at least 75% of the underlying structure upon which the Democratic National Convention was built. I’m skeptical that it could have been as powerful and successful as it was at focusing and amplifying the Democratic message if in the Spring Team Obama had merely held serve by matching Romney’s expenditures dollar for dollar. In fact, I think their strategy was to do everything they could to force errors. While Romney held up OK in that regard, the pressure probably did contribute to his own biggest *unforced* errors: the Tax Return Debacle, the European Insult Tour, and avoiding all networks except Fox.

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