Political Campaigning May Be Mostly Pointless

Political Campaigning May Be Mostly Pointless
Chad Rhym/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
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Roughly $6.8 billion was spent during the 2016 election, and according to a forthcoming study in American Political Science Review, much of it probably went down the drain.

That money wasn't technically wasted, of course. It paid for campaign managers, television ads, private planes, and countless cups of coffee. What it didn't do, however, was actually convince citizens to vote for a candidate.

Joshua L. Kalla, a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at UC-Berkeley, and David E. Broockman, an assistant professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, teamed up to conduct the very first meta-analysis of studies examining the effects of campaign contact and advertising on voter choice. They uncovered forty studies estimating the effect of "campaign advertising and outreach through the mail, phone calls, canvassing, TV, online ads, or literature drops on voters’ candidate choices."

When pooled together, these studies showed almost no effect of campaigning on altering a voter's choice in a general election. (Below: A summary of the effect sizes from some of the studies analyzed. Notice that they're all over the place.)

"Our best guess is that it persuades about 1 in 800 voters, substantively zero," Kalla and Broockman wrote. If that estimate holds true in the real world, it means that out of the 139 million people who cast ballots in 2016, only 174,000 were actually swayed from one candidate to another.

Kalla and Broockman also oversaw nine new field studies examining the effects of canvassing on altering voters' preferences come election day. None of the canvassing campaigns were substantively effective.

"To be clear, our argument is not that campaigns, broadly speaking, do not matter," the researchers wrote. "For example, candidates can determine the content of voters’ choices by changing their positions, strategically revealing certain information, and affecting media narratives. Campaigns can also effectively stimulate voter turnout."

The latter point seems to be the most relevant. In an era of increasingly entrenched beliefs and echo chambers, campaigns are more about encouraging those who already agree with a candidate to go to the polls than actually convincing people to change their minds.

"Voters in general elections appear to bring their vote choice into line with their predispositions close to election day and are difficult to budge from there," Kalla and Broockman wrote.

While campaigning doesn't seem to alter beliefs in general elections, it is effective in primaries and ballot initiatives, when partisanship is mostly absent, the researchers found. They also noted that solid studies are scarce in the arena of television and digital advertising, and more research is needed to tease out any potential effects or lack thereof.

If there's one takeaway from this new research, it's that campaigns should essentially serve as giant voter turnout drives, rousing excitement and allaying apathy. Also that campaigns and political action committees can stop bombarding us with all those maddening ads. (Pretty please?)

Source: Kalla, Joshua and Broockman, David E., The Minimal Persuasive Effects of Campaign Contact in General Elections: Evidence from 49 Field Experiments (September 26, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3042867

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