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.

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