If Campaign Effects Are so Minimal, Why Even Try?

Today marks the beginning of my gig as a regular blogger for Pacific Standard. I’ll be doing a weekly column there on, you know, politics ‘n stuff. (Thanks to Marc Herman for helping to make this happen.) Anyway, my first piece is a discussion about campaign effects, related to this blog post I wrote a few weeks ago. I try to explain why the Obama campaign, which was purportedly steeped in political science research and obsessed with empirical testing of its activities, spent so much time and money on activities (such as a massive ad campaign during the summer of 2012) that likely had zero effect on voters.

One explanation that I really didn’t get into in the piece (although a friend wrote to discuss with me) is that a candidate who understands all this minimal effects research is nonetheless trapped in a collective action dilemma. The candidate has obligations to her supporters and to the other candidates on her ticket. If all those people (and reporters, party activists, donors, and other observers) believe that campaign activity matters a lot, then the candidate sends a terrible signal by doing nothing. What may be, on an empirical level, a very smart decision to not waste money on a particular ad campaign is nonetheless seen by others as, at best, a dereliction of duty and, at worst, an outright betrayal. So until these empirical findings are accepted by a very broad swathe of political observers (don’t hold your breath), it will still be in candidates’ political interests to keep paying for things with little or no payoff.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.