Do Political Campaigns Matter?

Recently the Washington Post published an article that exposed one of the ugly truths of presidential campaign politics, at least for reporters and the political junkies who avidly follow each twist and turn (and spin). Campaigns don’t matter that much – not Etch-A-Sketch, and not the president’s birth certificate. Political scientists have shown that the fundamentals – the economy, partisanship, and incumbency – matter far more in determining the outcome of a presidential election.  So will campaigning matter in Massachusetts, for Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown, Richard Tisei and John Tierney?

Campaign effects are a frequent topic on my favorite political science website (other than MPP), For example here is a recent post from Prof. John Sides about what to watch for in the presidential race. First, he says, watch for broad economic trends (a lot of good political science forecasting depends on economic variables). Second, watch campaign advertising – with important caveats. Ad effects come about when one side outspends the other significantly. Ad effects dissipate quickly. And it is an open question whether ads affect the outcome of a race (at least a presidential race). Finally, watch the ground game – organization is something that is proven to have a campaign effect.

There are some good links in Prof. Sides post and here is one to Nate Silver’s post The Moneyball of Campaign Advertising (Part One). The important points are: First, “Campaign ads matter more when the candidates are unfamiliar.” Second, “Campaign ads matter more when a candidate can outspend the opponent.” Third, “Campaign ads can matter, but not for long.”

So let’s extrapolate to Massachusetts. It is likely that the poor performance of the economy under President Obama contributed to the election of Scott Brown in 2010. The economic picture is more mixed now. If anyone has research on economic effects in US senate or house campaigns, send it along. Democrats hope that incumbency will aid John Tierney, Republicans project it will bolster Scott Brown. The partisan makeup of the state certainly favors Warren over Brown and Tierney over Tisei. This can be seen in the thrust of the Brown campaign, which focuses upon his personal qualities and his distance from his own party in Washington.

In both the senate and house races, the contestants are able to raise roughly equal amounts of money. It thus seems unlikely that campaign ads will have a large impact on the senate race. There are not many undecided voters; the May Suffolk University/7News poll had it Brown 48%, Warren 47%, 5% undecided, to which Suffolk pollster David Paleologos remarked “This leaves both campaigns no choice but to spend tens of millions of dollars in an all-out war to woo the five percent of voters who will decide this election.” The problem is they may not be paying any attention and even if they are it is unlikely that Scott Brown’s Dad ad or Elizabeth Warren’s Heart ad will stick with them until November.

Campaign advertising and spending can play a larger role in a house race. The candidates are less well-known, especially the challenger. Political science research shows more bang for the buck for the contender because he or she is less well-known than the incumbent. Recently Tisei has been able to raise more money than Tierney, as well.

If the research on campaign advertising is full of caveats, the one thing that political scientists definitely know is that campaign organization matters. Here is where the Democrats have a distinct advantage. Not only are there more partisan Democrats than partisan Republicans to mobilize in Massachusetts, but as my colleague Prof. Ubertaccio points out the Democrats have John Walsh. Walsh has proven to be a master at the ground game. Some of his compatriots on the Deval Patrick campaigns now run the show for Elizabeth Warren. While the twitterverse was 140-charactering itself into a tizzy over Warren’s heritage, the Democrats have been building organization.

The ground game can matter in the house race too, a lot. In that one there is the complicating factor of Congressman Tierney’s in-laws. Democratic House incumbents can’t usually be beaten in Massachusetts without a scandal, but do the Eremian brothers fill the bill?

As Prof. Duquette keeps reminding us, watch the fundamentals, not the daily headlines.


About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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