As we head into the 2020 presidential election, discussions about which candidates appeal most to swing voters and independents have already started to appear in the media. Who will play best in the Rust Belt? Who can reach voters that stayed home in 2016?

Those are significant questions to consider, but the more important answer, according to two University of California researchers, might be that campaigns are better served spending their time rallying core supporters instead of trying to persuade so-called “undecideds.”

Campaign Spending

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, campaigns spent more than $6 billion in 2016 and more than $5 billion in the 2018 midterms. Based on recent trends, the number will likely climb even higher in 2020.

Where does all that money go? Mostly on advertising in one form or another — everything from flyers and brochures to Facebook ads and TV commercials. Campaign spending also goes toward staffers who coordinate phone banking and door-knocking efforts.

All of this money is in service of persuading people to vote for one candidate over another. In their work, University of California political scientists David Broockman and Joshua Kalla found that political advertising did not lead to any significant change in the way people voted.

An article in The Atlantic best sums up Broockman and Kalla’s research:

“The findings suggest that a lot of the time, energy, and money poured into traditional campaigning methods is wasted, and that the campaign operatives hawking tried-and-true tactics don’t have the evidence to back up their claims. It also casts doubt on the theory of the swing voter who can be persuaded with enough flyers, ad exposure, and conversations with earnest volunteers.”

At the end of the day, they argue, voters are much more likely to be persuaded by a candidate’s political party affiliation than any specific ad they might have seen or heard during the campaign. Most voters will choose the candidate their party endorses, no matter what the ads say.

A Better Way

Given that candidate-based advertising does not seem to translate to changes in voter behavior, how should candidates and campaigns get their messages across? Broockman and Kalla again offer advice via The Atlantic:

“In reality…direct outreach is most effective at improving voter turnout, suggesting that campaigns should focus on getting their core supporters to the polls than reaching out to a mythical middle.”

As a candidate, you should be doing everything you can to make sure that everyone who aligns with you politically will show up to the polls on Election Day. As we’ve seen in numerous races since 2016, sometimes a few thousand — or even a few hundred — votes can mean the difference between a victory and a loss.

This is not to say that the “political middle” does not exist. However, independent voters are independent for a reason. They are likely to come to their own conclusions based on issues they care about, which isn’t something that any amount of candidate-focused advertising can address.

Furthermore, most independent voters, Broockman and Kalla find, might be more accurately described as “closed partisans,” meaning they are not registered with a political party but are likely to support one party over another most of the time.

Where advertising can be effective, Broockman and Kalla found, is on moving the needle on ballot measures, which do not tend to be as overly partisan as candidate elections. Reaching voters through referenda can help campaigns build their pipeline and brand awareness when it comes time for a more significant push in a primary or general election.

For more information on the effects of political advertising, read the Q&A with Broockman and Kalla in The Atlantic.


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