Despite being vastly outspent by the campaign and supporters of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump won the 2016 election. Some are suggesting that the outcome has transformed the practice of American politics in fundamental ways — and that the television ad, in particular, has outlived its usefulness.
That conclusion is premature. In fact, if you are getting ready to run for statewide or congressional office in 2018, your opponent wants you to think that TV ads aren’t an important element of a successful campaign strategy.
In many ways, the 2016 presidential election was an oddity. Both major-party nominees began the fall campaign with strong — and strongly negative — public impressions of them. Among other things, that drove more Americans to vote for minor-party candidates than at any time since the Ross Perot phenomenon of the 1990s.
That effect, combined with the anomalous distribution of votes across key battleground states, meant that Trump secured an Electoral College majority with 45.9 percent of the nationwide vote. That was lower not only than Clinton’s 48 percent but also than Mitt Romney’s 47.3 percent of the vote in 2012.
Did TV advertising matter? Clinton certainly did a lot more of it. According to a Wesleyan Media Project count, the Democratic candidate and groups supporting her spent nearly $190 million in broadcast TV and national cable ads during the fall campaign, while Trump and groups supporting him spent just over $100 million. Clinton also outspent Trump on local cable buys, although the estimates are fuzzier.
But the sheer volume of ads isn’t the whole story, as Erika Franklin Fowler of Wesleyan University, Travis Ridout of Washington State University, and Michael Franz of Bowdoin College point out in a new study published in a political science journal called The Forum. Their analysis of the 2016 advertising shows that Clinton’s spots relied heavily on personal attacks (think of the ads depicting children who watched Trump cursing and fulminating) while Trump’s spots tended to contrast his positions with Clinton’s positions on substantive issues.
“For all of the talk of the unusual advertising campaign that Trump ran in 2016,” the authors observe, “his message strategy was more traditionally policy-focused. Ironically, it was the Clinton campaign that deviated sharply from the conventional playbook.” Overall, 70 percent of pro-Trump ads were about policy, compared to only 25 percent of the pro-Clinton ads.
Moreover, while Clinton overwhelmed Trump in sheer numbers, his ads turned out to be more skillfully placed in the homestretch. Indeed, during October the Trump campaign and supporters outspent the Democrats in local broadcast TV buys in Wisconsin and Michigan, and nearly matched them in Pennsylvania. It was in the final week of the campaign that Clinton swooped in and blanketed those states — too late, it turned out, to keep Trump from swiping them from her column.
Fowler, Ridout, and Franz note that while the patterns of advertising in the presidential race were atypical, the campaigns for Senate, House, governor, and other offices looked more normal in 2016. Richard Burr’s re-election in North Carolina was a good example of the traditional and successful use of TV ads.
There is no question that the advent of social media, the proliferation of cable channels, and the return of door-to-door canvassing have transformed political campaigns in the 21st century. The 30-second spot placed on prime-time networks or local TV news isn’t the workhorse it once was.
But if you want to win a competitive election, you still need it in your stable. And when you bring it out, you better give it the right job. Democrats spent tens of millions of dollars telling voters what they already knew, and didn’t like, about Trump — and in places such as Arizona where Clinton was unlikely to win. Meanwhile, Republicans put their smaller budget into key battlegrounds just as undecided voters were making up their minds, and often told them something about Clinton’s positions that they didn’t already know.
In a fluky election, it helped clinch the win. North Carolina politicians should take note.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.