Political campaigns usually save their heaviest television spending for the tail end of a campaign. They save their powder because political advertising is expensive, and because academic researchers haven’t found any benefit to spending heavily on television early in campaigns. Two years ago, however, Barack Obama’s campaign flipped established political media strategies upside down. And now, in Massachusetts, the Republican Governors Association is taking a page from Obama’s 2012 campaign playbook.
A super PAC funded by the national Republican group went up on the television airwaves with an ad trumpeting Charlie Baker’s gubernatorial candidacy in the dead of August. The RGA-funded super PAC, Commonwealth Future, timed its ad buy in a way that allows it to dominate the political advertising landscape. Commonwealth Future is trying to push the governor’s race in Baker’s direction while the Democrats are still too busy with primary season to focus on Baker.
The timing of the RGA’s pro-Baker ad blitz evokes the Obama strategy of spending heavily on television relatively early in the campaign, rather than waiting for the normal crush of TV ads in the days before an election. It’s a risky strategy, and one that’s squarely at odds with political science research on the way television ads impact voting behavior.
Polling in the Massachusetts governor’s race shows that Baker’s standing with voters has improved since the RGA started spending money. But that same polling data shows a similar gambit by state Treasurer Steve Grossman, who is fighting an uphill battle to become the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, largely fell flat.
Political scientists who have studied the impact of television ads on elections routinely discount the impact of political advertising. In their book "Get out the Vote," Donald Green and Alan Gerber write that campaigns routinely waste large sums on ineffective electioneering tactics. They argue that face-to-face campaigning is much more effective than spending on TV, direct mail and robocalls. Gerber, a Yale professor, was also part of a team of researchers that turned Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 2006 reelection campaign into a field experiment on the impacts of political television spending. Gerber’s team found that any impact Perry’s television spending had on public opinion disappeared within a week or two. The Texas research seemed to confirm the conventional wisdom of late-campaign ad blitzes. As the political scientist John Sides wrote at FiveThirtyEight, “Campaigns may be wasting millions of dollars running ads weeks if not months before election day,” because “the effects of television advertising appear to last no more than a week.”
Obama’s reelection effort threw all this academic research in the trash. The campaign spent heavily through the summer, and tapered its television spending in the fall. “October TV matters less,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina told The New Yorker in the closing days of the 2012 contest. “By September, people are disregarding ads,” Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod argued after the election. “They back-loaded,” he said of Romney’s television strategy. “We front-loaded.”
The Republican Governors’ Commonwealth Future PAC got on television early in a big way. The group poured $1.25 million into airing a pair of ads lauding Baker that began running in early August. A second $1.25 million ad buy last week financed a sharp attack on Democratic front-runner Martha Coakley that will run at least through the Democratic primary.
The RGA PAC has been, by far, the heaviest television spender in the governor’s race to date. Advertising disclosures filed with the Federal Communications Commission show Commonwealth Future is on pace to outspend the Democratic primary field on television by $1 million. The PAC has been running at least 260 30-second spots per week on broadcast television stations. (Broadcast television stations must file real-time political advertising disclosures with the FCC; cable stations do not.)
The RGA spending appears to be helping drive Baker’s poll numbers up. Baker’s name recognition in the Boston Globe’s weekly tracking poll was flat during the two months that preceded the RGA television spree; his name recognition has risen by 8 points since RGA started spending on television. The share of general election voters who view Baker favorably has risen by 7 points during the same period.
Heavy summer television spending hasn’t worked out nearly as well for Grossman, who’s chasing Coakley for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Grossman began spending money on television in late July. A super PAC funded by Grossman’s political supporters, including his mother, jumped in a week later with an ad praising Grossman and attacking Coakley on gun control.
Between the two of them, the Grossman campaign and the pro-Grossman super PAC spent roughly $870,000 to air more than 700 30-second commercials over the course of four weeks. The money was spent to minimal effect. Grossman’s statewide name recognition rose by just 3 points during the month his ads were on the air; it has risen by an identical 3 points in the weeks the Grossman campaign and super PAC have been off the air. The most recent WBUR poll had Grossman trailing Coakley by 24 points.