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Magazine / COMMON SENSE

Five Key Myths About Campaigns

They’re not solely about issues or personality traits, and TV ads don’t make a huge difference.

photo of Matthew  Dowd
September 23, 2012

Joseph Campbell, the late philosopher, author, and lecturer who often spoke about the power and importance of myth, once said, “Myth is what we call other people's religion.” 

Myth has been important in helping reveal truths that are too obtuse, complicated or unknown to us. Myth, when integrated into our hearts and thoughts, can expose underlying truths that we otherwise can’t perceive. It is when we accept the myth as the ultimate truth that we get into trouble – in both our personal views and politics. 

Repeated myths can take us away from the truth and don’t allow decisions to be made based on reality for political leaders and campaigns. As we approach a very important Election Day in a little over a month, let’s address a few of these myths.

 

Myth one: Campaigns are about issues or personality traits. While issues and traits are important, campaigns ultimately are about values. The discussion of issues and exposure of personality traits become indicators of broader values on which voters base their decisions. It isn’t moral values, but deeply held gut values that voters want to have in their president. In 1992, the race was about which candidate cares about you, and the economic discussion became an indicator for this value. In 2004, the election was about strong leadership, with national security as an indicator.  This year’s is about a combination of authenticity, which candidate better understands voters’ lives and strong leadership.  Look for the candidates to expose these traits in the debates ahead, not policy details. 

Myth two: Television ads matter hugely. It becomes an easy myth to repeat that the money poured into ads will determine the election results. The media finds it easy to report on the amount of ad dollars spent as a quick way to describe a campaign. In the past few elections, though, the actual importance of advertising has dropped dramatically. In fact, there is little evidence that TV ads have made much difference at all.  After the 2004 campaign, I was involved in an analysis that showed ads made an insignificant difference. In 2008, Barack Obama outspent Hillary Clinton in Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania by more than two to one and lost all three in the primaries.  In the general election, there was no extra bump for Obama against John McCain in places in which Democrats considerably outspent Republicans. In fact, there was no difference in attitudes between the target states that saw the ads and non-target states. 

Myth three: The gay-marriage referendums on the ballot in 2004 increased conservative turnout and helped President Bush win. This oft-repeated myth has no basis in reality.  There was no statistical difference in turnout patterns between states with these referendums and those without. The repeating of this myth actually has covered up the changing values of the American public on this issue toward greater openness and acceptance. 

Myth four: Cause-and-effect campaign coverage. This occurs when the media and campaign operatives attribute change directly to events on the campaign trail. A candidate misspeaks and poll numbers fall; therefore, the misspeaking caused the result. Or the president gives a speech and his poll numbers rise; the speech made the difference. This is a country with more than 300 million people and it moves slowly and incrementally in most cases, absent a huge event or crisis. It is usually the accumulation of various events or decisions that cause movement in voter attitudes, not any singular event. Campaigns are multi-chaptered books that end in a conclusion that voters make on Election Day. When watching the upcoming debates, guard against cause-and-effect mythmaking, and instead watch for things that reinforce an existing narrative.

Myth five: Elections are either motivation elections or persuasion elections. Again, in a desire to simplify the analysis and explain outcomes, many political observers try to categorize each election in one of those ways. In fact, each election is about both persuasion and motivation. The base matters in each election as well as persuadable or undecided voters. The best campaigns understand this and allocate their resources accordingly. If one path is chosen exclusively, it usually ends in defeat.  

As we face the final days of this very close race, and as we face our own lives and relationships, it is much better to use myth as an exposure of truth, and not as substitute for it.

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