Wesleyan Media Project Sees Disconnect Between Election Ad Spending and Poll Results | Connecticut Public Radio
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Wesleyan Media Project Sees Disconnect Between Election Ad Spending and Poll Results

Feb 1, 2016

"With such a crowded race, advertising is actually harder."
Erika Franklin Fowler

The 2016 presidential race is shaping up to be unusual, including in the decreased impact advertising has on polling.

The Wesleyan Media Project in Middletown tracks television broadcast advertising and national cable ads. 

Erika Franklin Fowler of the WMP teaches government at Wesleyan University and co-directs the project. I recently spoke with her about advertising trends in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Erika Franklin Fowler: When we talk about advertising in elections, I think the most important thing to remember is that advertising is not a silver bullet. Advertising matters most at the margin, and so we are seeing a big disconnect this year between advertising and polling.

Part of it has to do with Donald Trump dominating the -- what we would call free or earned media cycle. Jeb Bush and his allies have been spending large amounts of money. Despite the fact that he was up on air, his message didn’t seem to be gaining traction, and with such a crowded race, advertising is actually harder in that context.

It’s easier if you have one clearly defined opponent who you can go after, but you see even in the ads today, they are going after multiple candidates and there is still a lot of uncertainty about who will be the nominee.

WNPR's Diane Orson: Not only is targeting the ads difficult and fragmented, but also, media itself is so fragmented.

Sure. Yes, absolutely. There’s no doubt that that is the case. We are seeing more and more people go to alternative venues. Local television and television advertising is still the main way that people will hear from candidates, so that’s the reason that you will see, despite the polling numbers, you still see candidates engaging in advertising.

It’s also the primary way to hit the most people, but there are other ways that you have to be working in reaching voters, and the audiences for any one venue are not as large as they used to be. In the last several cycles, we’ve seen candidates and campaigns become more sophisticated in the way in which they target their advertising.

Is the targeting preaching to the choir, or is the targeting going after voters who might not necessarily be drawn to a particular candidate?

I don’t want to suggest that it’s only a bifurcation, but you do see a division of labor in terms of strategy. Television advertising tends to be going after the undecideds, the persuadable because it’s the primary way that you can reach those people -- the people that don’t necessarily tune into politics, aren’t already on your mailing list, those sorts of things.

Whereas the online venues tend to be where you’re preaching to the base. Television advertising -- for all the talk of television declining -- television advertising is up over previous cycles. And the other thing -- and this is not a change in trend, it’s just a continuing trend -- outside groups are paying for a lot more advertising in 2016 than they have in previous cycles. That’s also not surprising, given the shift in the campaign finance landscape over the last few years.

What should we be watching for in the coming days and weeks?

We should expect to see that after New Hampshire, we’ll have a couple candidates drop out, simply for lack of support. The campaigns that are still out there, you’ll start to see more focused attacks.

The other thing we know about 2016 is that voters are sick and tired of politics and politicking as usual, if that makes sense.

Some of the ads -- we partner with a company called Ace Metrix, which tests all of the presidential ads in real time, and they’re saying that the ads that are testing best are some of the ones from Sanders where he’s appealing to these idealistic views of America. I think that’s not surprising on the one hand, because you know that citizens are sick of negative politics, but also, those types of ads might stand out against a backdrop of citizens being tired of the politics as usual.