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Do Political Ads Actually Work?

Democrats and Republicans are on track to spend about $1 billion each on television advertising in the presidential race. Most of it is negative, and almost all of it is concentrated in nine battleground states.

If you live in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia or Wisconsin, you cannot get away from the ad blitz being waged by both sides. For the folks who track political advertising at Kantar Media CMAG, these commercials tell a story.

According to data compiled by the ad-tracking firm from April to October, the ads are overwhelmingly negative by almost 7 to 1, and the chessboard is set.

The ad battleground won't shrink even when some states are beginning to look out of reach — like North Carolina is for the Democrats — because both sides have so much money.

"It used to be, you'd sit around and go, 'We only have a finite amount of money because we've taken federal funds,' says Ken Goldstein, president of Kantar's Campaign Media Analysis Group. "And those campaigns used to have to sit around and make very, very difficult decisions, triage decisions about where they were going to play and where they were going to ... leave. You really don't need to have those tough decisions now."

But the ad buys also tell us the map is not expanding, either. For example, Republicans are not yet spending money in Michigan or Pennsylvania. As for who has the advantage in the ad wars, Goldstein says until recently President Obama's re-election campaign had put more lead on the target.

"Obama and the Democrats, actually for much of late August and almost all of September, had an advantage in message flow in terms of paid advertising," Goldstein says. "That's been equal the last couple weeks.

"Everyone believes we're going to see a huge amount of Republican money the last two weeks, but the last time we looked at these data ... both sides ... are up at very equal levels in all the markets that matter."

SuperPACs and parties pay more per spot than campaigns, which get a discount. If you buy your spots early, as the Obama campaign did as opposed to the GOP challenger, Mitt Romney, you get a cheaper rate.

No matter who you are, says Goldstein, if you want to make sure your ad reaches a target group of persuadable voters in the right states, you'll pay much more.

"What may be the most valuable is college football in the Midwest. If white males are a target, what do white males like to do? [They] like to watch football," Goldstein says as an example of the way in which campaigns target certain voting blocs. "That becomes a very, very valuable, valuable, buy."

But do ads actually work? Political scientist Diana Mutz is skeptical.

"There's very little evidence that ads make much of a difference in a presidential campaign," she says. "Most people are shocked when they learn about what the likely effects are relative to the huge amount of campaign resources that gets poured into advertising.

"It's shockingly small bang for the buck when it comes down to it."

But the campaigns are happy to settle for "shockingly small." Goldstein figures that there are about 800,000 truly undecided voters in the battleground states; factor in a total of $1 billion in ads — and that means campaigns are spending about $1,000 per persuadable voter.

"You have tremendous numbers of ads chasing very, very few eyes. Now, that said, you may say, 'Well, that's not very efficient.' But these campaigns aren't worrying about efficiency," he says. "These campaigns are worrying about Al Gore. All of this stuff matters at the margin. Ask Al Gore if the margin matters."

Former Democratic presidential nominee, Al Gore, of course, lost by 537 voters in Florida in 2000 — a point the Obama campaign happens to make in a new ad.

Goldstein also says he thinks ads might explain why Romney is doing better in the national polls than in the battleground polls where voters are exposed to a barrage of anti-Romney ads.

Look at Ohio and Wisconsin. Ohio was expected to be close, and the Obama side pummeled Romney with negative ads all summer; the president retains a small but measurable advantage in the state. In Wisconsin, where the Obama campaign was thought to have an advantage, Democrats didn't start advertising until this fall, and a steady summer-long GOP ad buy has helped put the state in play.

But are voters tuning the ads out?

"There's actually no good evidence that there's a saturation point beyond which people are no longer paying attention or interested in the political ads," says political scientist Lynn Vavreck.

"The ads have effects ... but those effects decay pretty rapidly," she says. "So, if you're the Obama or the Romney campaign, one of the things you need to do is be consistently on the air. You cannot cede any part of the game to your opponent, because then those effects will start to accumulate."

So, as long as there is one more voter out there to be persuaded, the ad wars to get him will continue.

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Corrected: October 25, 2012 at 10:00 PM MDT
An earlier online version of this article incorrectly reported that Diana Mutz was a Stanford University political scientist. She is a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Corrected: October 25, 2012 at 10:00 PM MDT
An earlier online version of this article incorrectly reported that Diana Mutz was a Stanford University political scientist. She is a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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