The Big Lessons of Political Advertising in 2018

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Screen shot of Beto O’Rourke’s Facebook ad, 2018.
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Erika Franklin Fowler, Wesleyan University; Michael Franz, Bowdoin College, and Travis N. Ridout, Washington State University

The 2018 midterm elections are in the books, the winners have been declared and the 30-second attack ads are – finally – over.

As co-directors of the Wesleyan Media Project, which has tracked and analyzed campaign advertising since 2010, we spend a lot of time assessing trends in the volume and content of political advertising.

Because we have television data that span a number of elections, we can provide detailed information on how prominent TV ads are overall or in any given location, how many different types of sponsors are active and how the content of advertising compares to prior election cycles.

Of course, television is not the only medium through which campaigns attempt to reach voters. But online advertising, which represents the biggest growth market, has been much harder to track.

Prior to May of 2018, for instance, social media giants like Google and Facebook did not release any information at all on political advertising, so tracking online advertising began in earnest only this cycle.

Florida Democratic congressional candidate Mary Barzee Flores focused on health care in this ad.

Although Americans frequently complain about campaign advertising, it remains an important way through which candidates for office can communicate their ideas directly to citizens, especially those who would not necessarily seek out the information themselves.

What role did political advertising play in the 2018 midterm elections? Here are our top observations:

1. Digital advertising grew in 2018.

Data on digital ads in prior cycles are not readily available, but we know from campaigns and practitioners that the dollars spent in online advertising are growing quickly. Facebook reports that just under US$400 million was spent on its platform for political ads, ranging from U.S. Senate races to county sheriff, between May of 2018 and Election Day.

Google reports about $70 million in spending on ads in races for the U.S. Senate and House on its ad network during a comparable time period.

Some candidates prioritized digital advertising over traditional television ads. For example, Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke spent at least $8 million on Facebook and another $2 million on Google. That was about 34 percent of the $29.4 million total that his campaign spent on advertising, if we include the $19.4 million spent on broadcast television in 2018.

To be sure, O’Rourke was an outlier. We found in October that about 10 percent of spending by Senate candidates on advertising was on digital ads between May 31 and Oct. 15, 2018.

Still – in a fragmenting media environment where people receive information from a variety of different sources and spend substantial time on social media and online – you might assume that campaigns’ heavy focus on digital advertising would displace television advertising.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

2. TV is still important to congressional and statewide campaigns.

This is demonstrated by the record number of television ads in 2018. Data from our project show that the number of ads aired in races for governor, U.S. Senate and U.S. House increased by 58 percent from 2014 to 2018, from 2.5 million to almost 4 million ad airings.

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The biggest increase was in U.S. House races, where ad airings rose from under 600,000 in 2014 to over 1.2 million in 2018. The large number of competitive races in 2018, especially in the U.S. House, may account for much of the increase.

3. The election was about health care.

Even in a fragmented media era with a hyper-polarized electorate, advertising in 2018 shows that it is still possible to find agreement across campaigns on the importance of particular issues.

In this cycle, that issue was clearly health care.

More than a third of the record-breaking number of ads aired in federal and gubernatorial races mentioned health care, and the attention to health care as an issue only grew throughout the cycle, with 41.4 percent of all airings in the post-Labor Day period mentioning the issue. In total, 1.4 million airings mentioned health care and 979,249 of those aired between Sept. 4 and Election Day. Health care was by far the most mentioned issue.

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The dominance of health care was driven by the laser focus on the issue on the Democratic side. A little more than half of pro-Democratic ads in federal races during the post-Labor Day period mentioned the topic. By contrast, the second largest issue was taxes, at 14.7 percent of airings.

Although pro-Republican airings in federal races talked more about taxes during this window – 35.3 percent – than any other issue, health care ran a close second, appearing in nearly a third of pro-Republican airings.

Pro-Democratic gubernatorial airings also talked more about health care – 45.5 percent – than any other single issue. Education and taxes ranked second and third, respectively.

Pro-Republican gubernatorial airings were the only ones that did not include health care in the top two topics, but the issue did rank fifth in percentage of airings in the post-Labor Day period. It was behind taxes, education, jobs and public safety issues.

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4. Outside groups continue to be active.

Outside groups paid for 22 percent of ads aired in U.S. House races in 2018, an increase over the 15 percent of group airings in 2016. And those outside groups paid for a little more than one-third of all ads aired in U.S. Senate races, a slight decrease from 2016.

In partnership with the Center for Responsive Politics, we categorize these groups into three classifications: full-disclosure groups, meaning they disclose contributor lists to the Federal Election Commission; nondisclosing dark money groups that are most often 501(c)4 nonprofits; and partial-disclosure groups that identify donors but also accept contributions from dark money sources.

In past cycles, we found that dark money was more prevalent among Republican groups than pro-Democratic ones. This cycle, the pattern flipped.

One in four, or 25 percent, of ads aired by groups on behalf of Democratic House candidates in the election year was from a dark money group. Only about 12 percent of pro-Republican ads aired by groups in House races was from a dark money sponsor.

In Senate races, dark money sponsors for Democrats and Republicans were about equal in share, roughly one in every three outside group ads on either side of the aisle.

Nowhere to hide

All told, 2018 was a “do everything” election, where many campaigns invested heavily in traditional TV ads and online advertising facilitated by social media.

We have long suspected that TV ads would decline as digital ascended. That may yet happen, but in 2018 voters were truly bombarded by ads on their TV screens.

Political ads may have stopped for the moment, but the reprieve will be brief.

Our data show that election off-years, as 2019 is, will still feature substantial amounts of campaign advertising, often reminding voters about accomplishments in office or setting up attacks on vulnerable incumbents.

Until those start, enjoy the brief break.The Conversation

Erika Franklin Fowler, Associate Professor of Government, Wesleyan University; Michael Franz, Professor of Government, Bowdoin College, and Travis N. Ridout, Professor of Government and Public Policy, Washington State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Generation Z voters could make waves in 2018 midterm elections

By Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Tufts University

Unlike the much-studied millennials, we don’t know much about Generation Z, who now make up most of the 18- to 24-year-old voting bloc.

These young people started first grade after 9/11, were born with the internet, grew up with smartphones and social media and practiced active-shooter drills in their classrooms.

In 2018, they have taken an active role in political activism on issues like gun control, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. For example, Parkland high school students started the movement against gun violence and named voting as a way to support the movement.

Yet, many people are skeptical about Generation Z’s commitment to voting. For instance, The Economist explained, in a piece titled “Why Young People Don’t Vote,” that “young people today do not feel they have much of a stake in society.”

Will Generation Z affect the midterm elections?

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The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, where we do research, has been watching young people’s civic and political behaviors for nearly 20 years. This fall, my colleagues and I are conducting two large-scale national surveys of 2,087 Americans ages 18 to 24 to document and understand what Gen Zs are thinking, feeling and doing when it comes to politics.

So far, the data point to a surge in political engagement, intention to vote and outreach between friends to encourage voting. Gen Zers may be voting for the first time, but they are certainly not new to politics.

All signs point to youth wave

Young voters have a reputation of not showing up to the polls, especially in midterm elections. This trend goes back 40 years.

There are a few ways we can find out how likely it is that people in Generation Z will turn out to vote.

First, we can just ask. In our survey, 34 percent of youth said they are “extremely likely” to vote in November. While a survey can’t predict exact turnout numbers, data from previous surveys we’ve done using this approach have been close to actual turnout numbers. Other evidence supports this measure of intent to vote: Voter registration among young people is up in key battleground states and overall.

Research also shows that activism and intent to vote are strongly correlated. So, in our survey we also asked young people about activism, such as participating in protests, union strikes, sit-ins and walk-outs.

The proportion of young people who join protests and marches tripled since the fall of 2016, from 5 percent to 15 percent. Participation is especially high among young people who are registered as Democrats.

Finally, we found that young people are paying attention to politics more than they were in 2016. In 2016, about 26 percent of young people said they were paying at least some attention to the November elections. This fall, the proportion of youth who report that they are paying attention to the midterm races rose to 46 percent.

It’s clear that more young people are actively engaged in politics this year than 2016.

Why?

Cynicism and worry aren’t obstacles

To learn more about what might be motivating Generation Z to vote, we asked our survey participants to rate their level of agreement with three statements.

“I worry that older generations haven’t thought about young people’s future.”

“I’m more cynical about politics than I was 2 years ago.”

“The outcomes of the 2018 elections will make a significant impact to everyday issues involving the government in my community, such as schools and police.”

In this year’s survey, we found that young people who feel cynical are far more likely to say they will vote. Other research has found that cynicism about politics can suppress or drive electoral engagement depending on the contexts.

Among young people who said “yes” to all three of those questions, more than half – 52 percent – said they are extremely likely to vote. Among young people who said “no” to all three of those questions, only 22 percent were extremely likely to vote.

Our poll results suggest political involvement in this generation is far above the levels we usually see among youth, especially in midterm election cycles.

In fact, almost 3 out of 4 youth – 72 percent – said they believe that dramatic change could occur in this country if people banded together. Gen Z is certainly aware of the challenges ahead but they are hopeful and actively involving themselves and friends in politics. Beyond almost any doubt, youth are involved and feel ready to make a dramatic change in the American political landscape.The Conversation


Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Director, Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement in the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

You can trust the polls in 2018, if you read them carefully

By Josh Pasek, University of Michigan and Michael Traugott, University of Michigan

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A Michigan township collects votes in 2016.
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On the morning of Nov. 8, 2016, many Americans went to bed confident that Hillary Clinton would be elected the nation’s first female president.

Their confidence was driven, in no small part, by a pervasive message that Clinton was ahead in the polls and forecasts leading up to the election. Polling aggregation sites, such as Huffington Post’s Pollster and The New York Times Upshot blog, reported that Clinton was virtually certain to win. It soon became clear that these models were off the mark.

Since then, forecasters and media prognosticators have dissected what went wrong. The finger-pointing almost inevitably landed on public opinion polling, especially at the state level. The polls, critics argued, led modelers and the public to vastly overestimate the likelihood of a Clinton win.

With the 2018 elections coming up, many in the public have expressed their skepticism that public opinion polls can be trusted this time around. Indeed, in an era where a majority of American adults no longer even have landline telephones, where many people answer only when calls originate from a known number, and where pollsters’ calls are sometimes flagged as likely spam, there are lots of reasons to worry.

But polling firms seem to be going about their business as usual, and those of us who do research on the quality of public opinion research are not particularly alarmed about what’s going on.

Looking back

One might be tempted to think that those of us in the polling community are simply out to lunch. But the data from 2016 tell a distinctly different story.

The national polls were fairly accurate both in their national estimate of the popular vote in 2016 and in historical perspective. In the average preelection national poll, Clinton was ahead of Donald Trump by 3.3 percentage points. She proceeded to win the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points. Pollsters missed the mark by a mere 1.2 percentage points on average.

The polls in the Upper Midwest states missed by larger margins. These polls were conducted in ways that pollsters widely know to be suboptimal. They relied heavily on robocalls; on surveys of people who volunteer to take surveys on the internet; and on samples of respondents from voter files with incomplete information.

What went wrong

So why was the 2016 election so shocking? The big reason wasn’t the polls, it was our expectations.

In the last few years, members of the public have come to expect that a series of highly confident models can tell us exactly what is going to happen in the future. But in the runup to the 2016 election, these models made a few big, problematic assumptions.

For one, they largely assumed that the different errors that different polls had were independent of one another. But the challenges that face contemporary polling, such as the difficulty of reaching potential respondents, can induce small but consistent errors across almost all polls.

When modelers treat errors as independent of one another, they make conclusions that are far more precise than they should be. The average poll is indeed the best guess at the outcome of an election, but national polling averages are often off by around 2 percentage points. State polls can be off by even more at times.

In addition, polling aggregators and public polling information have been flooded by a deluge of lower-quality surveys based on suboptimal methods. These methods can sometimes produce accurate estimates, but the processes by which they do so is not well-understood on theoretical grounds. There are lots of reasons to think that these methods may not produce consistently accurate results in the future. Unfortunately, there will likely continue to be lots of low-quality polls, because they are so much less expensive to conduct.

Research out of our lab suggests yet another reason that the polls were shocking to so many: When ordinary people look at the evidence from polling, just as with other sources of information, they tend to see the results they desire.

During the 2016 election campaign, we asked Americans to compare two preelection polls – one where Clinton was leading and one where Trump was ahead. Across the board, Clinton supporters told us that the Clinton-leading poll was more accurate than the Trump-leading poll. Trump supporters reported exactly the opposite perceptions. In other studies, we saw the same phenomenon when people were exposed to poll results showing majorities in favor of or opposed to their own views on policy issues such as gun control or abortion.

What polls really say

So, what does this all mean for someone reading the polls in 2018?

You don’t have to ignore the results – just recognize that all polling has some error. While even the experts may not know quite which way that error is going to point, we do have a sense of the size of that error. Error is likely to be smaller when considering a polling average instead of an individual poll.

It’s also a good bet that the actual result will be within 3 percentage points for an averaging of high-quality national polls. For similarly high-quality state polls, it will likely be within more like 5 percentage points, because these polls usually have smaller sample sizes.

What makes a high-quality poll? It will either use live interviewers with both landlines and cellphones or recruit respondents using offline methods to take surveys online. Look for polls conducted around the same time to see whether they got the same result. If not, see whether they sampled the same kind of people, used the same interviewing technique or used a similar question wording. This is often the explanation for reported differences.

The good news is that news consumers can easily find out about a poll’s quality. This information is regularly included in news stories and is shown by many poll aggregators. What’s more, pollsters are increasingly transparent about the methods they use.

Polls that don’t use these methods should be taken with a big grain of salt. We simply don’t know enough about when they will succeed and when they will fail.The Conversation

 

About the Authors:  Josh Pasek, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies, University of Michigan and Michael Traugott, Research Professor at the Center for Political Studies, University of Michigan.


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.