You're Dumb . . . Nuh-uh . . . Are Too . . . How Do We Know What Works in Politics?
A recent article from Ben Smith at Buzzfeed titled, “The Incredibly Dumb Political Spending Of 2012,” pushes the claim that rich donors are the dumb ones and political consultants are exasperated old hands going along with the flow of money. But there’s surely no shortage of stupid to go around, and many donors actually listen to the bad advice of their old hand consultants.
More important, though . . . how do we know what spending and which ads are stupid and which are brilliant?
Almost all, if not all, of the big, “dumb” expenditures were vetted through industry-standard testing and found to be effective. Polls and focus groups were conducted and people were asked to rate arguments, or move little dials, or tell a moderator in front of a one-way mirror that 40-something-white-mothers-in-Virginia thought that ad was really good because it speaks to “us” and our “everyday problems.”
The problem is, all of these standard tests of messages are so subjective and inadequate that they can and do lead to wildly different conclusions that are equally probable. Politics is in desperate need of real experiments that pinpoint causal relationships, not just math and storytelling (unfortunately, Progressives are light-years ahead of us on GOTV experiments).
But what the SuperPACs are using to fill that gap is hardly the laser-focused, hard-hitting stuff of textbook campaigns. Instead it’s a welter of mixed messages. One pre-convention week in August, for instance, the Romney campaign was focused on what his aides said was the most effective ad of the cycle, an attack on Obama for weakening some work requirements in the federal welfare law. But the SuperPACs were offering an array of different messages . . .
Alright, so opening multiple lines of attack on the incumbent at the same time is apparently a stupid thing to do. Why? I have my own ideas on all this. But honestly, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I don’t know. And neither does Ben or whichever source told him this was a stupid thing to do.
At times, the messages haven’t just been scattered, but have actually been flatly contradictory. The Iowa-based American Future Fund spent $4 million on an ad painting Obama as a captive of Wall Street — roughly the opposite of Romney’s message that the president is an enemy of capitalism.
Was that ad really contradictory of Romney’s message? I didn’t think Romney’s argument was Wall Street = Capitalism = Good, Obama - (Wall Street+Capitalism) = Bad. A lot of free-market and middle-road folks hate a lot of what big business and Wall Street have done, like get Big Government to bail them out. Maybe the additional angle was a great compliment to Romney’s general defense of capitalism and WS, acknowledging the government-induced rot in our free enterprise system.
But, again, I honestly have no idea what the combined effect of exposure to these two messages would be. I could come up with completely plausible and potentially true arguments for a range of effects.
The pro-Obama SuperPAC Priorities USA . . . used its relatively limited resources . . . on a single message: That Romney’s private sector work destroyed middle class jobs, and that Romney is an enemy of the middle class. And now, it’s Democrats who are taking time to gloat.
“At Priorities we’re confident that with the resources we’ve had we’ve made a real impact in this race,” said the group’s Bill Burton. “I’m not sure every group can say that.”
Seriously, Bill? Literally every group can and does say they've "had a real impact on the race" because they all find subjective measures that support their narrative. Bill's attack sounds like a pretty effective message to me. Is that the only effective attack on Romney there is? Probably not. Would it be better to focus just on one effective message, or to launch a number of attacks? I don’t know. And neither does Ben or Bill.
Could two effective messages, or even two relatively ineffective attacks, have a combined effect that’s greater than their sum? Absolutely, that’s possible. We found that women moved away from Republicans on the generic Congressional ballot when they saw both the pro and anti-Romney ads, but not with either one alone.
But the flood of Republican money, and its lack of obvious impact, have done little to reverse the inside political perception of donors as something short of political geniuses.
Look, I know there are a lot of donors that simply want to spend their money on something, regardless of the advice of their “old hand” experts or good evidence that it’s a bad idea. But a lot of them actually listen to the experts. It seems very strange indeed to blame the donors and acquit their political hands.
And regardless of who’s at fault, nobody has good, objective evidence about their actual effectiveness in any case. For that you need true experiments.