As the presidential election has drawn closer, many individuals have had the experience of watching a political ad on YouTube, television or social media. While some may doubt the effectiveness of political ads, it’s possible that political ads have more influence than one might think.
“Ads make a difference,” said Professor Arthur Sanders of the Drake Political Science Department. “In presidential elections, the effect is small… when you get down to [the] Senate, then House, and state elections, the effect can be much larger.”
Sanders says that people with certain characteristics are more susceptible to political advertising.
“The influence the ads [tend] to have are on people who are genuinely undecided, but also don’t pay a lot of attention to politics,” Sanders said.
Paige Hardy, a first-year at Drake from St. Louis, Missouri, says that she hasn’t been very attentive to politics since she started at Drake.
“I’m a neuroscience and psychology major, so I haven’t been [as] focused on political stuff as I was in high school, with all of my classes and everything,” Hardy said.
Hardy says that political advertising has influenced her perceptions of state politicians in Iowa.
“[Political advertising] definitely shows me who I would be inclined to vote for, so I definitely think it has an impact on what my views are and what I would like to see for this state,” Hardy said.
Other students feel that the effect of political advertising pales in comparison with the influence of their own research.
“I am very passionate about politics so I stay in the loop with everything, and I don’t think that that’s the group they’re necessarily even wanting to go for,” said Maddie Haun, a sophomore at Drake. “They’re trying to vie for [the votes of] other [people] who aren’t sure who they’re voting for.”
Sanders also discussed how advertising efforts vary across different demographics. One example he cited involves efforts made by Democrats and Republicans to reach young people like Drake students.
“The Democrats have invested more time in trying to reach young people because if you look at the survey results that we have, younger voters right now are much more inclined to be Democratic than Republican, so they figure they’ve got a lot more to gain,” Sanders said. “They want to figure out a way to reach the Drake students who are likely to vote, don’t watch television, but could use some more information about the campaign.”
According to Sanders, both positive and negative ads are components of an effective political advertising strategy.
“Negative ads do more persuading than positive ads, but people who are in the process of being persuaded by the positive ads find the positive ads reinforcing of what they’re doing,” Sanders said. “It’s an overarching strategy where you’re trying to mix the two in the right mix to maximize your support on Election Day.”
Hardy appreciates the information presented in some positive ads.
“I think it’s easier for me to detect what’s negative over positive at times, but when there is a positive ad…it’s just nice to know what they stand for, so that makes me more inclined to vote for them. It’s good for them to be straightforward,” Hardy said.
Sanders also outlined two common responses that people tend to have when faced with a large amount of negative advertising.
“One is, you’re convinced that someone really is the lesser of two evils, right?” Sanders said. “Okay, they’re both jerks, but one’s a little less of a jerk, so I’m going to vote for that person. The other is, to hell with both of ‘em, and I’m not going to vote!”
Sanders says that the ads build on existing frustrations that voters have with “the whole tenure of politics today.”
“The fact that the Democratic House and the Republican Senate cannot agree on another stimulus package probably contributes more to disgust with the system that the negative ads do, but the ads certainly reinforce that feeling,” Sanders said. “They’re just another example to people of how terrible our politics are right now.”
According to Sanders, politicians can evoke this response to their advantage by producing negative ads targeted at certain demographics.
“In 2016, one of the things that helped Donald Trump was lower turnout among African Americans, and the Republican campaign spent a lot of time trying to sour African Americans on Hillary Clinton,” Sanders said. “They weren’t trying to convince them to vote for Donald Trump, they were just trying to convince them not to vote.”
However, Sanders also says that a “relatively high voter turnout” is anticipated in the upcoming presidential election.
“The number of people who think it’s really important that their candidate win this election is larger than the number of people who are throwing up their hands and saying, forget it,” Sanders said.