A common refrain you’ll hear this week is that the massive spending on TV ads by Super PACs this election cycle was a spectacular failure. That may be true in the sense that very few of the Republican candidates who benefited from Super PAC spending, especially in Senate races, prevailed on Tuesday.
But there’s something else worth remembering about the mountains of cash Karl Rove and others spent on TV ads slamming Democratic candidates: Research has shown that those types of campaign ads rarely make a difference anyway.
In one recent study, political scientists Michael Jones and Paul Jorgensen showed that what really matters when it comes to campaign ads is not the volume of spending itself but the gap between the two sides — that is, how many more ads you air than your opponent. For every 1,000 or so ads you air more than your opponent, they found, you can earn yourself about one percent of the vote.
As the chart above shows, gaps that large are relatively rare — when both sides air TV ads, they air roughly the same amount, keeping the gap narrow, which means TV ads rarely make a difference in political campaigns. In a massive study of competitive congressional races in 2000, 2002 and 2004, Jones and Jorgensen found that TV ads likely made a difference in just 11 of the those races.
The Obama campaign, of course, recognized this reality, blitzing the airwaves early in the campaign when Romney was low on cash and couldn’t respond. The Super PACs stepped in to fill the gap, but their attacks were poorly coordinated and self-defeating, hitting President Obama on everything from the deficit to Israel to coal.
So not only did Super PAC spending fail miserably, but it stands as yet another example of the conservative bubble. The Obama campaign’s effectiveness was due in part to its reliance on actual empirical data about what kinds of campaign strategies work in the real world. Conservative plutocrats and operatives like Karl Rove, by contrast, ignored the data. As a result, their attacks backfired.