Election Advertising Failing for Presidential Candidates
Roughly a month and a half until the November election in America. Seven weeks until the final, irreversible decision (unless the Supreme Court steps in again) is made by the People. In our current age of hyper-partisan rhetoric, unparalleled political vitriol, and record-breaking campaign spending, it is interesting to see that some Americans are still undecided. But not many. And they probably aren’t truly undecided. And they won’t be swayed by election advertising in the next two months.
National Election Advertising is Pointless
The latest polling shows that only two percent of likely voters in America are undecided. However, I believe this race will ultimately be decided by a three-to-five point margin. The 2000 election taught us that our Electoral College system and a partisan Supreme Court negate the importance of a national popular vote. Instead, elections are decided by up to seven or eight “battleground” states like Ohio, Florida, Colorado, and Michigan. It is there that the undecided vote matters. Neither of the campaigns care about the undecided voters in Mississippi or California. Those states are already heavily leaning towards Romney or Obama, respectively. But if you think the race will come down to a 51%-49% decision, and it will be based on less than 1% of the voters in one or a few battleground states, and you have far more money for election advertising than is necessary for a national campaign, spending thousands of dollars to buy a single vote makes sense.
You Can’t Win ‘Em All
The “undecided” voter is usually not undecided. That’s my anecdotal analysis, but I think it’s important in this discussion. If you read some of the myriad of articles written about the undecided vote, the participants usually say something like, “I like what Romney stands for and I’m glad he’s anti-abortion and can help fix the economy and is a strong family man…but I just don’t trust him.” Does that sound undecided to you? Not me. That sounds like a person who has a favorite candidate but doesn’t like 100% of their character.
Another key issue with an undecided voter is the litmus test. Are they “one-issue” voters who, despite their qualms with a particular candidate, still have that one topic on which they can’t accept the other side? These are usually abortion, gun ownership, the environment, immigration, the military, or “big government”. These folks may publicly claim to be undecided or leaning in one direction, but when they hit the voting booth, there is no chance of earning their vote if you don’t match their views on that hot button issue.
How Can Anyone Be Undecided Now?
Despite the massive overflow of election coverage and more than $1 billion spent on political advertising already, it is still possible to be undecided. These voters are genuinely torn on two issues: the economy and society. They are tough to pigeonhole in a party, especially when the two biggest parties remain in the grip of their fringe elements. The undecided voter is probably a fiscal conservative and social liberal (or vice versa). They liked Obama in 2008 but aren’t happy with the economy after four years. This is especially true of anyone who voted for Obama in ’08 but is now unemployed or underemployed. People have a tendency to vote their wallet.
Another group of undecided voters are the genuinely disenfranchised. They don’t like the choices but they may still vote. They aren’t a fan of either candidate and they have been turned off by the political process. Too extreme, too rich, too negative, or too corrupt, there is no shortage of reasons for them to view this whole thing with sour grapes. Some polls may still include them as “likely voters” because they have voted in most or all previous Presidential elections during their lifetime and/or they answered “yes” when asked if they were a likely voter on a screening questionnaire.
When these “likely voters” wake up on Election Day, they may not even hit the polls. They would be another example of failed election advertising. Literally thousands of dollars were spent on their vote and they have no intention of casting it. In fact, it was most likely the tone of the ads, not the frequency in swing states that turned them off and they got to see and hear that negativity thousands of times.
So what is a candidate to do?
On one hand, the Romney and Obama camps could drastically reduce their ad spending, change the tone of their message, offer real information about their plans to voters, and spread knowledge about the unique benefits of American democracy and why citizens should participate. Call me cynic, but I don’t see that happening.
If anything, you will see the campaigns spend as much money as possible, increase the negativity of their message, continue to distort facts and ignore their own Presidential goals, completely disregard the greatness of American democracy, and then hope they win. Election advertising has the unfortunate element of being a winner-take-all battle. If you lose, you don’t become Vice President like you did before the 12th Amendment.
My sympathies go to those battleground state residents who must endure the next seven weeks of media torture as they hear attack ad after attack ad. Ninety-eight percent of them already know who they will vote for and there is a strong chance the other two percent won’t be changing their minds or won’t vote at all. So much of this election advertising is for naught.