Day in and day out, in battleground states across the country, voters are seeing ads like the one above. The messages they're absorbing from this advertising onslaught have an enormous impact, relatively speaking. Yet while the candidates' speeches on the campaign trail are covered and dissected exhaustively, the impact of the ads is far less examined, as it's almost impossible for reporters to gauge the strategy behind their dissemination and the role they're playing in candidates' fortunes. A fascinating recent Politico story did much to reveal the different Romney and Obama ad-buying strategies, but the content and effectiveness of the ads remains difficult to evaluate.
A new study aims to bring some clarity to that muddle. A market-research firm called Qualtrics, working with public-opinion shop Evolving Strategies, did a controlled experiment testing the reactions of independent and persuadable voters to ads from Romney, Obama, and a Republican super PAC. They found that Obama's ads were working to sway swing voters, while Romney's were not — and the Koch Brothers-backed GOP super PAC, Americans for Prosperity, didn't help Romney, either.
The study exposed 2,300 voters to Romney and Obama ads on three themes — Medicare, economic plans, and economy-based attacks on the other candidate — as well as the Americans for Prosperity ad, "Disappointed." A control group didn't see any ads. All the respondents were either pure independents or weak partisans; none were strong Democrats or Republicans.
Obama's ads overall had the desired effect: They increased his share of the vote by 6 percentage points while decreasing Romney's share of the vote by 8 points on average. Romney's ads, meanwhile, had no statistically significant effect on the survey respondents. The survey sample began the experiment favoring Romney over Obama, 47 percent to 42 percent; after watching both candidates' ads, they favored Obama, 48 percent to 41 percent.
There was a silver lining for Romney, however. His ads didn't convert swing voters, but they did persuade voters who picked John McCain in 2008 to vote for Romney this time around. Obama's ads had no impact on his supporters' enthusiasm. After watching both candidates' ads, the percentage of McCain voters extremely enthusiastic about voting increased 13 points, from 31 percent to 44 percent, while extremely enthusiastic Obama voters held steady at 38 percent. That means Romney's ads could be doing him some good by firing up his partisans so that they don't stay home on Election Day.
As for the super PAC, with friends like these, Romney may not need enemies. The Americans for Prosperity ad features testimonials from Obama voters who say the president has let them down. The study found it had no effect on the vote overall and actually hurt Romney with women voters. The only positive effect of the ad was a large increase in enthusiasm among males who voted for McCain in 2008. "Surprisingly, the 'Disappointed' ad is terrible as a soft-edged appeal to swing voters, but seems to be very effective red meat for male voters in Romney's base," the study notes.