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Political Ads For Presidential Candidates Don't Work

We are entering the height of the political advertising season when commercials for candidates take over our TV sets, especially in swing states. Here in Massachusetts, we see presidential ads because voters in swing state New Hampshire watch Boston TV.

Record amounts of money are being spent by President Obama and Mitt Romney and their allies; the National Journal found that a combined total of two-thirds of a billion dollars has already been spent. At this rate, combined spending by the candidates and their allies will surely reach $1 billion by Nov. 6.

Nearly all of the ads will be negative or comparisons. After each wave of ads has run for a short time, the campaign will turn to its polls to see if the ads worked. However, the rising poll numbers for Obama and falling numbers for Romney have little to do with their advertising. Romney has had a horrid general election, highlighted by his criticizing the London Olympics while in London, knocking the president for attacks on foreign embassies, and writing off 47 percent of Americans.

A brand new study from The Ohio State University shows that people only pay attention to advertising from candidates they support. “Political ads of candidates people disagree with don’t really have much overall effect,” the study revealed. Instead of becoming angry or converted, people simply tune out the message.

The study, led by Zheng Wang, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State, examined 15 people’s bodily responses while they watched presidential campaign ads. Subjects were hooked up to devices that monitored heart rates, skin moisture and facial muscles.

The people in the study watched actual ads that ran in 2008 for presidential candidate John McCain and his opponent Barack Obama. The conclusion:

Partisan participants reacted strongly to ads featuring their favored candidate, but barely responded to ads featuring the rival candidate. In comparison, people who didn’t favor one candidate over the other showed similar physiological response patterns and intensity to ads for both Obama and McCain. This suggests that partisan participants weren’t really paying attention to the ads featuring the candidate they opposed even as they watched them.

“If people are exposed to information in ads regarding a candidate they oppose, they respond by basically tuning out,” Wang said.

So how and why do opinions change? Candidates for president, unlike races for other offices, are not as dependent on advertising and other paid communications as other races are. Voters have many sources of unpaid information about presidential candidates, from TV news, debates, newspapers, radio — especially public radio and talk radio — websites, blogs, email, social media and, perhaps most important, conversations with coworkers, friends and family. Campaigns use all media to influence voters, but an old-fashioned method is very much at work: simply talking to voters.

Both presidential campaigns are engaged in aggressive “ground” campaigns, where volunteers call or visit voters to persuade them to support a certain candidate. The Obama campaign, as happened four years ago, is significantly ahead of its rival campaign in the number of trained volunteers and local offices it has, especially in swing states.

For all of TV’s weaknesses, especially its enormous cost, campaigns are absolutely addicted to it. Neither side would dream of not trying to match the volume of its opposition in television advertising. They do this, even though the percentage of undecided voters in swing states is tiny. As Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster, put it, “Never before will so much money be spent by so many to persuade so few.”

Dan Payne is WBUR’s Democratic analyst. For more political commentary, go to our Payne & Domke page.

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