Donald Trump’s Ace in the Hole

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The Republican nominee’s campaign hasn’t spent much on advertising this election cycle, but that could be coming.

By Seth Masket

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(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Donald Trump just had a really bad week. But the election remains close, and while Trump’s been trailing Hillary Clinton basically all year, there’s good reason not to count him out at this point. He still has a largely untapped resource on reserve for the final weeks of the campaign: advertising.

Throughout this year, Clinton has proven to be the far more successful fundraiser, raising more than twice as much as her opponent has. And she’s used that money, in large part, to run advertisements in competitive states. According to an NBC news analysis a few weeks ago, Clinton was outspending Trump five to one on the airwaves. He’s still running shockingly few ads for a presidential campaign.

Political observers may sometimes be dismissive of the effects of campaign advertising. After all, the winner of an election isn’t always the one who spent the most. Systematic studies of campaign donations find they only have modest effects, if any, on people’s voting behavior.

In their pathbreaking field experiments in Texas’ 2006 gubernatorial election, Alan Gerber, James Gimpel, Donald Green, and Daron Shaw found that campaign advertising can have quite powerful effects, but short-lived ones.

Yet the idea that spending doesn’t influence much often stems from looking at presidential elections, where you typically have two similarly competent and similarly funded campaigns clashing on the same battlefields. As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck have noted, this situation is more like a tug of war — we don’t see much movement because both sides are pulling so hard. But, in fact, individual advertising efforts can be quite effective.

In their pathbreaking field experiments in Texas’ 2006 gubernatorial election, Alan Gerber, James Gimpel, Donald Green, and Daron Shaw found that campaign advertising can have quite powerful effects, but short-lived ones. A related study by Seth Hill, James Lo, Lynn Vavreck, and John Zaller found a dramatic decay rate in the effects of advertising — people forget them after just a few days — although the decay is actually sharper in subnational elections.

What does this mean for the current presidential election cycle? Again, we’re used to presidential elections in which both candidates spend roughly even amounts, but that’s clearly not the case this year. Clinton’s persistent advantage in the polls may be due, in part, to her advantage in advertising spending. This may be the reason she’s over-performing some election forecast models.

Moreover, if advertising really has such short-lived effects, then there’s not actually much value in running ads throughout the summer and early fall. Those effects will be gone long before Election Day. The ads that will affect actual votes have yet to run.

So if Trump’s campaign is rational, it will start running a massive ad blitz in swing states with early voting in the next few weeks. Perhaps it’s been testing some different messages in very limited ad buys in recent months. No, the campaign hasn’t had the funds to run the sustained, multi-month ad war that the Clinton campaign has, but it may well have enough to reach advertising parity with Clinton for the final three or four weeks of the campaign. And that might just be influential enough to bring the race to a dead heat.

There’s no guarantee any of this will happen, of course, and Trump’s own tweets and debate performances may end up undermining his advertising strategy. But it’s worth remembering that Clinton’s currently beating a guy who isn’t yet taking advantage of all his resources, and there’s still more than a month to go.

Thanks to John Zaller for several suggestions in this piece.

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