Political Campaign Ad Analysis Essay

Maybe you’re thinking the candidates are just good at guessing where they are most likely to pick up votes, and they put their ads in those places. That’s a reasonable concern. To try to get a sense of whether the effect of the ads is actually the effect of selecting the places to advertise (based on where the race is most likely heading), I looked at the same relationship using President Obama’s share of the vote from 2012 in each state and found the opposite relationship. In places where Mr. Trump dominates the airwaves, Mr. Obama won 60 percent of the vote in 2012. In places where Mrs. Clinton is winning the ad war, the president won only 50 percent of the vote.

The ads in 2016 do not predict the 2012 election result, suggesting that the states where Mrs. Clinton both advertised and picked up big gains over the summer were not on their way to some preordained outcome, like the one in the last presidential contest. She is out-advertising Mr. Trump in places where Mr. Obama’s race was quite close, and she is gaining vote share.

This suggests an impact from Mrs. Clinton’s campaign and an effect from the imbalance between the two candidates’ efforts. Essentially, the more candidates out-advertise their opponents, the more they pick up in vote share. The effects are small, but they add up.

In the battleground states, Mrs. Clinton’s share of ad volume was quite high over the summer — in the 80 percent range — suggesting that gains of about 2.5 points in places like Ohio and Florida were mainly because of her effort. In Arizona, where she nearly had the airwaves to herself and where she is continuing to make substantial ad buys, the imbalance most likely delivered her an additional 3.8 points of vote share.

In case you are wondering about my method, since we don’t get state polls (especially in non-battleground states) on a regular basis, I needed a way to measure the race in each state. To get at this, I used The Upshot’s daily forecast of Mrs. Clinton’s vote margin in each state. Details on how the forecasts are generated can be found here. Daily polls in every state would be better, but the forecast margin is a relatively good proxy. If anything, it underestimates the effects of campaigning, since by design it is looking for similarities across states and over days in order to render estimates between the dates of actual polls.

To measure the ad imbalance starting in June and going to the second week of October, I used data from Kantar Media/CMAG to calculate Mrs. Clinton’s share of presidential campaign advertising in each state. A few media markets cross state lines; where this happens I attributed the ads to the state in which the majority of the market resides.

There were no states that avoided advertising entirely during this period, but there were some with an extremely low total volume of ads. Twenty-six states had fewer than 100 ad airings, while nine had more than 5,000. Voters in Florida and Ohio have had the chance to see over 120,000 television ads combined — most of them for Mrs. Clinton.

Since I couldn’t isolate the effects of ads from the effects of all the other things candidates do to win votes, like knocks on doors and phone calls, the effects are best thought of as reflective of variations in campaign effort as represented by the imbalance in ads.

All told, from June to October there were five states with more than 100 ads in which Mr. Trump dominated, and 18 states with more than 100 ads in which Mrs. Clinton dominated. The largest imbalance for Mr. Trump was in Michigan, where he out-advertised her by 1,567 ads. The largest Clinton advantage was in Florida, where she is up by nearly 44,000 ads.

Over this same period, The Upshot’s state models estimated that Mrs. Clinton’s vote margin went up by an average of about a half percentage point. In battleground states where the race is traditionally hard fought, places like North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, her margins have gone up since June — and sometimes by quite a bit. In Pennsylvania, the increase was nearly six points. In Florida and Nevada, it was about two points. The question is whether the changes in her margins had anything to do with her ad campaign — and Mr. Trump’s — or were likely to happen anyway.

To get a sense of the effects of Mrs. Clinton’s ad advantage, I plotted the change in her share of the total ads from June until October in each state with more than 100 ads against the change in her vote margin in that state as calculated by The Upshot’s state models. The relationship is positive.

All this suggests that Mr. Trump’s strategy, while efficient in terms of costs, may not be effective in terms of persuasion. He has let Mrs. Clinton dominate the ad war in competitive battleground states and it seems to be costing him votes.

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Donald Trump: Two Americas

Analysis by Tyler Jimenez (University of Missouri)

“…what better way to forge a nation into a unity, to take everyone’s eyes off the frightening state of domestic affairs, than by focusing on a heroic foreign cause?”
—Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil, p. 98

This advertisement for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign compares two hypothetical American futures. The first, with Hillary Clinton as President and presented as “rigged against Americans”, is one in which illegal immigrants consume social security benefits, and terrorists, implicitly linked to Syrian refugees, threaten the security of everyday Americans. The second, with Donald Trump as President, boasts secure (i.e. closed) borders that keep the American people safe. The guiding message is simple; the solving of domestic issues is as simple as detaining, deporting, or otherwise punishing foreign out-group members. This is not a unique strategy; though perhaps the most famous example of the political use of scapegoating is the blaming of the Jewish people for problems faced by interwar Germany, more recent targets include China (Chen, 2010) and African-Americans (Krugman, 2007). Why is this technique so popular? An application of Ernest Becker’s work to this blaming of American issues on illegal immigrants and Syrian refugees reveals it is not a mere rhetorical trick; scapegoating appeals to our deepest concerns about our existence as an animal that has to die and knows it.

In his masterful Escape from Evil, Becker applied the final thesis from The Denial of Death, that humans create symbolic systems of meaning to allay existential anxiety rendered by knowledge of inescapable mortality (Becker, 1973), to the problem of human evil. He merged Marxist materialism with psychoanalysis, in keeping with the tradition of the Frankfurt School, to arrive at an existential dialectic in which history unfolds as a series of ‘workings out’ of existential concerns on others (Becker, 1975). Scapegoating is one such of these ‘workings out’. Before we get in too deep, let’s unpack Becker’s basic dynamic.

The recognition of death’s inevitability creates anxiety. To manage this anxiety, humans construct and adhere to symbolic systems of meaning, or cultural worldviews, that provide answers to the “big” questions of existence, e.g. Where did we come from? What is the correct way to live? What happens after death? These cultural worldviews also provide avenues for self-esteem maintenance. Together, cultural worldviews and self-esteem mitigate death anxiety by convincing people of their status as contributing members to a symbolic, and thus eternal, world of value and meaning. So, even if physical death is inescapable, one may live on through contributions made to their culture (Becker, 1973). This, however, does not completely solve the fundamental problem, as “the terror of death still rumbles underneath the cultural repression” (Becker, 1975, p. 5). So what does this ‘rumbling terror’ influence? Enter scapegoating.

Here is Becker’s basic explanation of scapegoating: guilt is projected onto the other to be destroyed. According to Becker and other existentialists, guilt develops from existential concerns such as the responsibility of self-creation, the loneliness and danger of individuality, and the limitations and fate of an animal body (see his perceptive passage on the nature of guilt in Escape from Evil p. 32-37). These issues arise from the heart of human existence and have been thusly labeled “ontological” (p. 35) and “metaphysical” (p. 103); simply, guilt is an inherent component of human existence. Guilt is also a very abstract concept that must be concretized in order to be managed. This is accomplished by projecting personal guilt onto out-group members that can then be destroyed, giving the person power over death and allaying their own existential concerns.

Recent social psychological experiments have exemplified this process in a nice way. Sullivan, Landau, & Rothschild (2010) found that exposure to external dangers increased attribution of influence to an enemy figure. In this experiment, and scapegoating in general, disparate dangers and anxieties are focused upon a single target, which can be destroyed, and the problems “solved”. Another study confirmed this grim conclusion; news of out-group deaths minimized anxiety following an existential threat (Hayes, Schimel, & Williams, 2008). We can now see why the use of scapegoating in political advertisements is so widespread and effective; it mitigates the guilt and anxieties of a conscious existence.


Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press.
Becker, E. (1975). Escape from Evil. New York: Free Press.
Chen, D. (2010, October 9). China Emerges as a Scapegoat in Campaign Ads. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/us/politics/10outsource.html
Hayes, J., Schimel, J., & Williams, T. (2008). Fighting death with death: The buffering effects of learning That worldview violators have died. Psychological Science, 19(5), 501-507.
Krugman, P. (2007, November 10). Innocent mistakes. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/11/10/innocent-mistakes/
Sullivan, D., Landau, M., & Rothschild, Z. (2010). An existential function of enemyship: Evidence that people attribute influence to personal and political enemies to compensate for threats to control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(3), 434-449.

Author Bio

I graduated from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado and am now working on a doctorate in social psychology at the University of Missouri. After, I hope to teach and continue research on terror management theory and related topics.

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