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Voters in Jaffrey, N.H., participate in the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary. As the 2012 presidential race progresses, the outcome could rest on how the campaigns of President Obama and Mitt Romney reach still-undecided voters.
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With Mitt Romney all but formally installed as the Republican presidential nominee, the 2012 general election campaign is just getting under way.
Most voters, though, have already made up their minds.
The first Gallup daily tracking poll of the campaign, released Monday, showed that 90 percent of Republicans support Romney, while 90 percent of Democrats favor President Obama.
No surprise there — and nothing that stands out as different from earlier election cycles, says Diana Mutz, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist. Most voters decide their voting preferences even before the parties can pick their nominees, she says.
Typically, Americans stay true to partisan allegiances formed when they were young. They won't be swayed by the ups and downs of a particular campaign.
The question is how the more independent-minded voters end up making their choice. "The campaigns are all targeted to that tiny number of swing voters," Mutz says. "They're hard to reach because they purposefully don't listen to the candidates all that much."
It seems like it's hard to tune out. The news media will spend the next half-year providing saturation coverage of the campaign, while the candidates, parties and interest groups will spend millions — make that billions — on advertising.
News? Ads? Or Something Else?
Which matters more when it comes to informing and persuading the undecided — news or advertising?
"It's really, really, really difficult to determine," says Ken Goldstein, president of the ad-tracking firm Kantar Media CMAG. "Different things are going to matter for different sorts of people at different sorts of time."
In the end, political scientists and practitioners don't agree on whether advertising or media coverage has more influence over voter decisions — or whether either makes much difference at all.
"The public has this perception of this powerful media, both news and ads," Mutz says. "The academic research shows that their effects are very limited."
It's difficult to know how voters get their political information because it's all mashed together. The news media give plenty of attention and many free plays to political ads, believing that they reveal as well as anything else a candidate's message and strategy.
On the other hand, ads are full of information drawn from media coverage. The old technique of plastering newspaper headlines throughout ads has given way to video clips from news coverage, such as the ad Romney's campaign ran in January made up almost entirely of 1997 NBC News footage covering the reprimand of Newt Gingrich as House speaker.
It's easy nowadays to unearth such clips. "The use of free media in paid media is going to be an increasingly big deal in this election season," Goldstein says.
The notion that people plan out their media diets based on what gibes best with their ideological preferences — that conservatives know which cable shows to watch, while liberals have bookmarked their favorite blogs and follow like-minded Twitter feeds — has become a cliche.
But political professionals aren't convinced such sorting shapes voting choices. That's because most people who switch over to networks such as Fox and MSNBC have already made up their minds. "The average person who just watches Fox News is already 80 or 90 percent likely to vote for Romney," says Ruy Teixeira, a Democratic political analyst at the Center for American Progress.
More people still get their news and information from so-called mainstream news outlets, such as the nightly network news shows. For all the persistent complaints about media bias, political professionals say their approach is too balanced to shift voter opinion.
"Media coverage generally — the newspaper back and forth, the holy grail of insiders — there's no evidence that it moves voters back and forth one way or the other," says David Carney, a political adviser to Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Persuasion Through Advertising
What does work, Carney says, is advertising to voters who are tuned in to watch network news and local news shows. "You control the message, you get to put it where you want to put it, you get to target it," he says. "That's why campaigns do it. It's expensive, but it's the easiest way to communicate with voters."
You can tell voters are influenced by advertising messages because sometimes they will repeat them back, verbatim, when polled, says Republican consultant Ed Goeas.
"The paid part of the campaign is going to come when people are listening the most," Goeas says.
About that time — roughly starting in September — political reporters become visibly frustrated because paid advertising takes on more importance than their coverage, Goeas says. "They realize they're sliding into a secondary position in their reporting," he adds.
Teixeira, the Democratic analyst, says that of course consultants contend that paid advertising works wonders. It's in their interest to claim their kinds of services (and some receive commissions based on the size of the media buys) hold great sway.
"If you look at how many people you persuade, it would be a lot more cost-effective to pay them, literally," says Mutz, who directs the Penn Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics. "There's lots of evidence that [paid advertising is] ineffective, very little evidence otherwise."
Voters get so much information about presidential candidates that they're not likely to be swayed by the claims of campaign ads, Mutz argues.
So What Does Work?
Political advertising works better when it comes to down-the-ballot races, which receive much less coverage, she suggests. When it comes to races for, say, state Supreme Court seats, advertising is more like introducing a product — less about persuasion and more about boosting name recognition.
"Below governor and Senate, then you might find out that advertising makes up a good amount of the information people have," says Scott Keeter, a pollster at the Pew Research Center.
Which brings us back to the presidential race. How will the relatively small number of persuadable voters end up making up their minds?
They may very well wait until the very last minute, Mutz says, tuning out all the ads and the massive amounts of coverage, coming to a decision based on a general feeling about the state of the economy or some event that happens in the final days before the election.
"They call this the paradox of the floating voter," she says. "The balance of power in swinging our elections is held by the least informed and the least interested. It's unfortunate, but true."