01 Mar 2015
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Research Brief: Political Capital

Re: Mitt Romney (MBA 1974)
by Janelle Nanos

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It’s no secret that politicians are trying to buy your vote—in the 2012 presidential campaign, Republicans and Democrats shelled out nearly $2 billion in their fight for the White House. But what’s the most effective way to spend that money? In a new working paper, HBS marketing professor Doug Chung and doctoral student Lingling Zhang compare the efficacy of the two most common forms of campaigning: flooding the airwaves with advertising and building an elaborate get-out-the-vote ground operation.

Chung and Zhang looked at 18,650 data points culled from the 2004, 2008, and 2012 presidential campaigns, weighing the size of the candidates’ ground game in the area against the number of ad impressions in each respondent’s region. The findings showed that the more partisan the voter, the more likely they were to respond to face-to-face efforts like door knocking and phone calls. Democrats in particular responded more strongly to such efforts than their Republican counterparts, a fact the researchers argue helped push President Obama into office.

Advertisements, on the other hand, worked better on less partisan voters, with many undecided or independent voters reporting that they were swayed by ads that came straight from the candidate—the “I approved this message” approach.

Super PAC ads didn’t move the needle much, though. The researchers found that they had a similar—though much less dramatic—effect as the troop-rallying ground efforts thanks to their typically negative, partisan message. “It proactively persuades them to go out and vote,” Chung explains.

So how would a bit of reshuffling of funds have affected US politics over the last decade? Chung and Zhang posit that if Mitt Romney (MBA 1974, JD 1975) had upped his ground game he might be sitting in the Oval Office. And if John Kerry had made a push for independents and upped his spending on ads by roughly 50 percent in Iowa and 80 percent in Ohio, he would have secured the two states, their 27 electoral votes, and the presidency.

Ultimately, Chung says that while the ground game has a huge impact on the outcome of campaigns, helping a candidate establish a lead that has him or her coasting, advertising can be the determining factor. “In a close election, advertising alone can be a difference maker.”

“The Air War Versus the Ground Game: An Analysis of Multi-Channel Marketing in U.S. Presidential Elections,” by Doug J. Chung and Lingling Zhang, HBS Working Paper.

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