ASHLEE RICH STEPHENSON: How to Measure Progress Versus Motion Amid Record Early Spending

Monday, January 6, 2020 - 11:00am

Generations of political operatives have been conditioned to start spending resources on major voter contact efforts in the final months of an election cycle, holding back the vast majority of advertising until swing voters are tuning in and the clock is running out.   

And as I wrote for C&E earlier this year, “There’s wisdom in the old advertising adage: ‘Shout loudest when people are paying the most attention.’ But there have always been exceptions to the rule.”

In a pre-2016 era, and perhaps before the Citizens United ruling changed money in politics as we know it, that approach made sense. It was the right way to do things and the most efficient use of dollars.

But today’s tribal political environment, evidenced by record-breaking turnout in 2018 and 2019, has upended the regular playbook when it comes to political advertising. And the proof is in the spending trends as reported in 2019. According to a recent piece in the Cook Political Report, “just over $32.5 million has (already) been spent in eight key (Senate) races.”  

Now, I think there are two serious questions consultants and political academics alike will reflect on: did the millions of dollars spent on ads in 2019 yield a real return on investment on Election Day 2020? And likely tougher to answer, is this earlier-than-early spending in federal races the “new normal” in political advertising?

In addition to the outcome at the ballot box, the first question is answered through measuring critical indicators of the condition of an incumbent and challenger as the cycle progresses. Historically important measurements of electoral health are things like job approval, a favorable-to-unfavorable score and, of course, the ballot test.  

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The strategic aims of this kind of early investment make sense at face value. Expand the playing field as much as cash will permit with the hope that there will be greater elasticity to move the ball down the line in several contests versus a narrow handful in the heat of the general.

That said, I will put my money behind the projection that no matter how much is spent, if the contours of the messaging and the targeting ultimately driving the placement isn’t correct, then the only return on investment will be that of committing the ultimate cardinal sin in politics: confusing motion with progress.   

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