How critical are campaigns in helping a presidential candidate secure victory? While political scientists may be cautious about asserting that campaigns are decisive in helping presidential contenders achieve electoral success, they may have to concede that campaigns played a pivotal role in President Obama’s reelection success. At least that is what Kenneth Goldstein, Jeremy Peters, and Neal Carruth argue. On November 16, Ken Goldstein, President of Campaign Media Analysis Group, moderated a bipartisan discussion called “...And I Approve This Message: Use and Effects of 2012 Campaign Ads.” Jeremy Peters, a reporter on politics for the New York Times, and Neal Carruth, the political director of National Public Radio, also participated in this panel. The panel was organized through the Michigan in Washington Program and held in Washington D.C. with live broadcast to the University of Michigan. The main purpose of the discussion was an analysis of why and how the side that campaigned “objectively” better (the side of President Obama) was able to win the election.
The audience heard interesting facets about this year’s campaign efforts. What do Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin (states that were neither solidly Democrat nor Republican) have in common? The audience will tell you that these states not only gave their electoral votes to Obama but also possess some of the largest concentration of college football fans. Now one might ask – is this merely coincidental or does a link really exist? If it does, what should we make of it? Do college football fans love Obama more than Romney? Not necessarily. Did Obama outspend Romney in his purchase of ad time during televised coverage of college football games? While it is certainly true that Obama had a tremendous advantage in the number of ads placed during college football games, any good political scientist who is vigilant about spinning a causality story will not conclude that Obama won the election because he did more to appeal to college football fans than did Romney. What they can conclude however, is that Obama’s advertising activities during college football season were part of an overall campaign effort that differed remarkably from that of Romney not only in terms of strategies but also in terms of goals and objectives.
Obama also advertised more heavily than Romney on cable and primetime television. For example, Romney’s campaign team did not purchase ad time on cable during the summer of 2012. Additionally, during the last two weeks of September, Romney did not have any ads on primetime television in about 30 to 40 markets. To make matters worse, even the super PACS that advertised on behalf of Romney and hence somewhat alleviated the gap in spending between the two candidates were unable to outspend Obama in crucial markets. Their incapacity to do so may have been partly due to rules stipulating the entitlement of campaigns to the lowest unit cost for ads. On the other hand, super PACS may be required to pay the maximum amount for ad time. Further compounding Romney’s dilemma of insufficient advertising was the content of his ads. The Romney campaign’s reliance on outside groups to keep pace with Obama eventually led to its inability to control the messages of the super PACS. Meanwhile, Obama’s campaign maintained a disciplined and consistent goal in its message, which was to discredit Romney’s character. Most astonishing however, is the “lack of a robust response” from Romney to Obama’s negative campaigning.
The differences in strategies reflect the distinctive views each side held about the role of campaigns. The Obama team perceived the campaign as a way to disqualify Romney as President - to prevent Romney from reaching that threshold of credibility. Thus, the team became the “attack dog,” spending not only early in the season but also heavily on negative campaigning in order to define Romney’s character, portraying him as an “out-of-touch plutocrat” who sends jobs overseas to India and China. Additionally, Obama’s campaign effectively reached out to subgroups for electoral support. Romney, on the other hand, viewed the achievement of a level of credibility as a sufficient goal for his campaign. Furthermore, his attempts to target crucial subgroups were weak. Essentially, his view of the campaign stemmed from a reliance on what he perceived to be the reality of the situation – the impossibility of Obama’s reelection with a high unemployment rate.
Given the troubling economic times the nation faces, perhaps Romney was not unreasonable in his logic. Nonetheless, Obama broke historical precedent with his reelection, and according to Goldstein, Peters, and Carruth, he accomplished this immensely difficult feat with a solid and effective campaign. Meanwhile, Romney’s confidence in the distress of the national economy to speak for itself was a major factor that would ultimately cost him the election.
Kenneth Goldstein is a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the President of Campaign Media Analysis Group. His research interests include political advertising, turnout, campaign finance, survey methodology, Israeli politics, and presidential elections. He received his PhD in political science from the University of Michigan.
Neal Carruth is the political director of National Public Radio who coordinates all the political coverage. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1999.
Jeremy Peters is a political reporter with the New York Times. He covered stories on political advertising but will be covering stories on Congress in the future. He received his B.A. from the University of Michigan in 2002.
Richard Hall, who moderated the panel from the University of Michigan, is a professor of political science and public policy. He has studied participation and representation in Congress, congressional committees, congressional retirements, campaign finance reform, legislative oversight, and lobbying in Congress.