A study about political advertisements in the 2016 presidential election reveals that Hillary Clinton ran one of the worst campaigns ever. Although the study erred on the side of objectivity almost to the point of being sterile, and avoided drawing conclusions beyond stating that the 2016 presidential election is an “outlier,” the graphs, charts, and data in the report paint a compelling picture of just where Hillary Clinton’s campaign went wrong when it came to spending, allocation, and focus in their advertisements.
“Political Advertising in 2016: The Presidential Election as Outlier?” published in A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics begins with a discussion of cost. The journal notes that in previous elections, the balance of ads between the Democrat and Republican candidate were about even. But in 2016, Hillary Clinton “spent vastly more on campaign advertising than did Donald Trump.”
Hillary spent about $258 million on advertising, while Donald Trump spent only $91 million. Just below Trump on the table, a Clinton-supporting group spent an additional $81 million. These figures indicate that Clinton spent almost four times as much money on advertising than Donald Trump.
“And yet Trump won the election.”
The authors of the study caution against drawing conclusions about television advertisements having little to no effect on voters. Instead, they point out that Clinton used an “unconventional message strategy” never before seen in their studies of political science. Clinton relied primarily on negative messages about her opponent’s character. She ignored certain states, then flooded them with advertisements during the last week of the campaign. Third, Clinton’s messages were almost devoid of information about her policies.
Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania were three key states that were expected to go to Clinton but “swung” to Trump in the presidential race. Charts in the study show the volume of ads each candidate ran in each state. Trump ran far fewer ads, but he ran them more consistently. In Michigan and Wisconsin, Clinton did not run any ads until the week before the election. Then, she “barraged the state.”
Her campaign ran over 4,000 ads in each state, all in one week, despite ignoring them completely the weeks before.
Furthermore, the political scientists looked at the content of the ads. They drew up charts to show the ratio of positive to negative messages and studied the ratio of ads that were personal versus those that focused on policy. The results were clear.
Almost 100 percent of the time, pro-Clinton party/group ads were about Trump’s negative characteristics and his personality. Clinton herself focused on the negative aspects of Trump’s character about 50 percent of the time. In contrast, pro-Trump party/group ads attacked Clinton 60 percent of the time, while Trump only spoke negatively about her less than 30 percent of the time. He focused his strategy on contrasting the two of them, while Clinton’s camp ran mostly negative ads. The tone of the Clinton ads was resoundingly negative.
The authors of the study point out that this may have backfired. They point to another researcher who discovered that “negativity in advertising can have a backlash effect on the sponsor,” meaning that continuously attacking Trump’s character ended up reflecting badly on Clinton. By focusing on whether or not Trump was temperamentally fit for office, Clinton inadvertently shut down discussion about why she was a good candidate.
“Trump, on the other hand, provided explicit policy-based contrasts, highlighting his strengths and Clinton’s weaknesses, a strategy that research suggests voters find helpful in decision-making.”
The final area the researchers looked at was a more thorough investigation of the advertisements’ content, dividing the ads into whether they were “policy” or “personal.” The researchers pointed out that in past elections, less than 20 percent of the ads are personal. Most of the ads are about policy.
Here, Clinton’s campaign took on an unconventional strategy and aired policy-focused ads only 25 percent of the time. The researchers point out that this is the lowest percentage of policy-focused ads ran by any candidate they have data on. Hillary Clinton simply didn’t focus on what her policies were, while Trump did.
In conclusion, running an advertising campaign that favors bad-mouthing your opponent over informing voters about yourself is no way to win an election, no matter how much money you have.
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