Campaign Ads in Battleground States May Confuse, Not Win, Swing Voters

By Melissa Lafsky | October 21, 2008 2:51 pm

In the final stretch before Nov. 4th, both the Obama and McCain camps have been hurling their efforts—not to mention cash—at key battleground states like Ohio, Colorado, and Florida. Most of the money has gone towards a near-nonstop rotation of TV and other ads, many of which consist of shoveling as much BS on your opponent’s head as possible in 30 seconds.

The ad game is all part of the conventional election wisdom, which goes something like, “Drown out the other guy’s messages with your own, and you’ll snag the voters.” But as it turns out, the barrage of competing ads may actually be having the opposite effect: A new study found that the more bombarded people are with different political messages, the more confused and ambivalent they become. In other words, all those clogged airwaves in Michigan and Ohio may be upping the chances that voters stay home on election day.

The study’s data consisted of surveys from the American National Election Study in 2000—which, as you’ll likely recall, was a particularly messy/disastrous/laughable example of politics in action. That year, the University of Michigan ran the survey, which included interviews with over 1,800 voters.

Study authors (and swing state voters) Luke Keele of Ohio State University and Jennifer Wolak of the University of Colorado, Boulder compared the survey results of voters in battleground versus sure-thing states, measuring levels of ambivalence based on the number of positive and/or negative items that the respondents listed about both Bush and Gore. The idea was that if a voter thought the two candidates were equally good/bad, it was a sign of that voter’s ambivalence. Keele and Wolak then cross-checked their results against the amount of TV each voter watched.

And the results?

[T]he total volume of candidate ads in a state had no effect on ambivalence levels among residents. However, ambivalence levels were higher in states where there was a high number of Democratic ads and a high number of Republican ads running at the same time.

“Competition in presidential ad spending promotes ambivalence,” Keele said. “People are continually hit with conflicting messages.”

Thank God we have YouTube to splice it all together and save us some time.

Related:

RB: Politicians v. Technology: Obama, McCain Battle the Internet
RB: How Much Does Your Brain Control How You Vote?

MORE ABOUT: mccain, obama, psychology, voters

Comments (61)

  1. Michael Swanson

    I’ve found that I am more involved and actively interested in this election and in state and local measures than I have ever been. I stopped watching TV about a year ago, and have been relishing the fact that I haven’t seen ANY political ads, except the small handful that I have actively sought out online. I’m not angered at or weary of – except in principle – the endless barrage of vague and misleading ads. I read about the issues, I read about the candidates, and I feel more confident than I ever have that I am casting an informed, researched vote. I do, of course, very much enjoy watching a candidate make a fool of him or herself on YouTube!

    Portland, Oregon

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