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Professor’s book tunes in to TV ads and economic voting

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Every four years, millions of Americans follow the campaigns of presidential hopefuls and listen to the messages, promises, and arguments of each candidate. But how do we ultimately decide what issues matter and for whom to vote? In his new book, Economic Voting: A Campaign-Centered Theory, Professor Austin Hart explores candidates’ television ads in the US and abroad to challenge theories of economic voting. We asked Professor Hart a few questions about his new book and the research supporting it.

What is Economic Voting: A Campaign-Centered Theory about?

My book challenges the longstanding notion that national economic context drives election outcomes. Yes, the economy “matters” in our choice between the candidates, but I argue that the intensity of voters’ exposure to economic campaign messages determines how much it matters. Looking at national elections, primarily in the US and Mexico, I show that candidates who wage skillful TV ad campaigns can make the economy more or less prominent in our minds. As a result, candidates can capitalize on favorable economic conditions or, contrary to the predictions of economic voting theory, overcome unfavorable conditions. This explains why economic context often seems to make election outcomes look preordained, but it also accounts for the large number of elections in which candidates escape the economic voting logic.

What is economic voting, and what are your arguments against it?

Economic voting is a theory linking national election outcomes to national economic conditions. Quite simply, it holds that voters choose to reelect governments in good economic times and oust them in bad times. It’s intuitive, but it’s just not consistent with what we know about political decision making. Nor is it a great way to forecast election outcomes. I show in the book that economic voting models fail to predict the winner in more than 30% of national elections worldwide. The problem isn’t their measure of national economic performance, for instance, but rather the underlying assumption that voters intend to hold governments responsible for their economic stewardship. It’s a nice story of civic virtue, but decades of research in the cognitive and behavioral sciences make it clear that we’re not wired that way. This is not to say that the economy never matters. Of course it does…except for when it doesn’t. The challenge is to explain why it matters in some elections and for some voters, but not others. My book offers a more persuasive account of when and why voters turn to their economic opinions when casting a ballot.

What is the difference between a message and an advertisement in the context of political campaigns?

An advertisement is one of several vehicles for disseminating a message, which is the thing that you want to say. In the modern media age, TV ads are the most effective way to reach mass audiences quickly, effectively, and on your own terms. There are no “gotcha” moments in TV ads. Unlike unscripted media appearances, ads are carefully crafted and scripted. You say exactly what you want to say. The communication team can put a dozen versions of an ad in front of focus groups before selecting the one to air. And, of course, you get to buy your own ad time. So you have the power to deliver the message when and where you want.

Of your book, you’ve noted that “voters don’t automatically evaluate candidates based on economic stewardship—we must be ‘primed’ to do so by economic stimuli.” What are examples of economic stimuli that encourage voters to make decisions based on the economic climate?

Cognitive-psychological research on priming has long shown that, when we make decisions, we draw disproportionately from considerations that are “on top of the mind.” When we see economic ads on TV, our thoughts about economic issues and about the state of the economy become more salient. As those considerations become more salient in our minds, they increasingly shape our opinions of the candidates. And it doesn’t take much to move issue salience. A mention in an ad, a story in the paper, even a conversation with friends can pull economic issues out of the cognitive cellar and into recent memory. On the flip side, economic opinions are pushed back down as other issues take center stage (e.g. national security or health care). So campaigns, in large part, are a battle over issue salience. Can I get voters to focus on the issues that give me the biggest edge?

What was your research process for the book?

I needed to know three things about each of the elections I covered in the book: first, what issues were the candidates talking about in TV ads? Second, from a strategic perspective, why did the candidates say the things that they said in those ads? Third, did voters’ exposure to those ads, especially economic ads, alter the strength of the economic vote? So I collected and coded more than 1,000 televised campaign ads and more than four years of newspaper coverage. I spent a lot of time in front of the TV. I also poured over transcripts of speeches and debates, all to track the rhetoric across the campaign. Then I interviewed strategists and pollsters who helped make decisions about what the candidate said and how often. I read memoirs and post-mortems from the candidates, journalists, academics, advisors, and more. Finally, I did a ton of data analysis. I combined longitudinal public opinion data (i.e. surveys in which the same voters are re-interviewed several times) with the TV advertising data to determine how many economic and non-economic ads each respondent saw (day to day) throughout the campaign. Then I looked to see if, for instance, respondents who were suddenly exposed to a wave of economic ads gave more weight to economic issues in their evaluation of the candidates than respondents exposed to non-economic ads.

In addition to American elections, does your book take a look at other countries—and if so, how do voting behaviors compare?

I focus primarily on four national elections. Two are from the US—1992 and 2000—and two are from Mexico—2000 and 2006. I also look at national elections in Brazil, South Korea, Canada, and even one older election from West Germany. Clearly there are big differences across these cases. Some are parliamentary elections, and others are presidential. Each country has different rules about campaign spending and advertising that affect messaging strategy. Voters have very different levels of attachment to political parties across these countries, and parties focus on different sets of issues. That said, voters aren’t fundamentally different across these cases. The basic psychological mechanisms that shape our political judgements in the US are the same mechanisms that guide voters elsewhere. Moreover, the American-style media campaign has been the global norm instead of the American exception for quite a while. So, despite the differences, I find the same patterns of “economic priming” in each case.

What are some of the takeaways that voters and political forecasters can get out of this book as we near November’s election?

First, and most importantly, don’t forget about the politics of an election! For all that we hear about the polls, the state of the economy, the demographics of each state, and more, it’s easy to forget that the things the candidates say and do really matter for the outcome in November. Second, the coherence and focus of a candidate’s message matters. Donald Trump is dominating the airwaves through earned media, but he doesn’t have control over his message. My research suggests that a scattered, reactive message, even a very loud one, will cost Trump dearly. Consider, for instance, what happened to Trump in the two weeks after the Democratic National Convention. Then compare that to his recovery in early September when he stopped doing TV interviews and a new email “scandal” put Hillary Clinton on the back foot. I’m excited to see who manages to wrest control of the conversation next.

Want more? Austin Hart talks TV ads, economic voting, and the current state of the campaign season in a video below.