Hey Super PACs, No Amount Of Campaign Spending Will Move The Polls

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One seemingly odd characteristic of this year’s election is the stubborn consistency of the polls. Consider: Since the Republican primary officially ended in early May, 10 of the 13 polls of likely voters have pegged the president’s vote share between 43 and 47 per cent, while 11 of 13 have shown Mitt Romney in the same band. If we remove the June 15 Bloomberg poll as an outlier, the standard deviation for the president’s numbers is two points. For Romney, it is 1.3 points.

Registered voter polls have shown similar results, though they are slightly better for President Obama. 20 of 25 show the president between 44 and 49 per cent, while Romney has been between 42 and 46 per cent in a similar number of polls. Overall, the standard deviation for each set is around two points.

All of this is a long way of pointing out that the various events in the campaign that journalists have focused on — Romney finally wrapping up the Republican nomination, Obama’s “doing fine” comments about the economy, two horrible job reports, the health care decision in the Supreme Court, and the Obama campaign’s spending dump on Romney’s work at Bain Capital — have done almost nothing to move this race. The president is ahead by a few points among registered voters, and roughly tied with Romney among likely voters.

This shouldn’t be that surprising. The high court ruling upholding Obamacare gave Democrats a temporary boost, but the law is still not particularly popular, at least among voters not already inclined to support the incumbent.

The ineffectiveness of the swing state spending is a bit more puzzling, at least at first blush. After all, Obama has been blanketing the airwaves in swing states with unanswered advertisements painting Romney as a ruthless corporate raider who costs people jobs and ships them overseas. Many of these spots are quite powerful.

The problem, however, is that elections are largely referenda on the incumbent. It takes something very powerful for the people to choose an unpopular incumbent over a challenger of any stripe.

Spending alone won’t do it (Jamelle Bouie beat me to this point yesterday in an article that’s well worth the read). To see why, let’s look at congressional races, which provide a larger dataset. The following chart shows incumbent spending margins from the 2006 election (for which I had data handy) and the incumbent margin of victory:

As you can see, there’s almost no relationship here between increased incumbent spending margin, and the incumbent’s margin of victory. In fact, several incumbents lost that year despite heavily outspending their opponents (this was even more marked in 2010). If we run a regression of the two variables, spending margin is barely statistically significant, and explains only a tiny per cent of the variance (the adjusted r-square is .018).

In a presidential campaign, both candidates are incredibly well-funded, to the point where they can achieve saturation media coverage in most major markets and still have money left over. This is especially true for Obama, who is a known quantity. His spending just isn’t likely to do that much to change the race, unless he hits upon an argument that disqualifies his opponent.

And variants of the Bain argument simply haven’t fared that well at the ballot box. Consider two recent examples from a pair of swing states in 2010. In Ohio, Ted Strickland savaged John Kasich with advertisements highlighting Kasich’s partnership with Lehman Brothers (which, you might recall, played a large role in the financial collapse). Kasich still won. In neighbouring Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey was on the receiving end of a nasty ad campaign tying him to Wall Street and outsourcing to China. As one of my friends who lives in Pittsburgh put it, “by the end of the campaign, you’d have thought Toomey lived in China.”

Those arguments would probably have worked better in a year like 2012, where the Democratic brand isn’t as weak. But the flip side of this coin is that Obama is no Ted Strickland, who represented Appalachian Ohio in Congress for 14 years, and certainly isn’t Admiral Joe Sestak.

That, I think, is the core problem for those making the “class warfare” argument. If the Democrats had a more populist nominee like Brian Schweitzer, he would probably have the credibility to make this case. But Obama is particularly weak among the voters to whom this line of argumentation is meant to appeal. It cuts down on the effectiveness.

Probably there is more to come, and maybe this is merely softening Romney up for the fall. But for now, it really isn’t all that surprising that the president has been unable to move the dial. His attacks on Romney simply aren’t enough to disqualify the former Massachusetts governor at this point, or to compensate for his own relative unpopularity, especially with working class white voters.

At the same time, Republicans are scratching their collective head, wondering why Romney can’t put this away, given the weak economy. It is even inducing a bit of panic among some of them.

But the dirty little secret of this campaign is that the economy is not terrible. It isn’t good, to be sure. But consider: Back in January I developed a metric based on various economic dataidentified by Nate Silver as correlating heavily with presidential election results. It found that the current economy was somewhere between 1992 and 1960.

Very little has actually changed in the past few months. The data improved in the first quarter, then cratered in the second quarter, creating something of a wash.

The net effect — and something I don’t think many conservatives understand — is an economy that is very different than that of 1980 or 2008. Those were years when things were collapsing on Election Day, and the party in power lost badly.

Right now, this economy is looking like that from 1992 or 1960. In those years, the incumbent party lost power, but they were relatively close elections, especially at this juncture. One can envision scenarios where either could have played out differently.

It really isn’t that far off the economies of 2004 and 2000, where the incumbent party narrowly won the popular vote.

So I wouldn’t expect Romney to achieve a major breakthrough anytime soon. The economy isn’t so bad that it would cause people to give up utterly on Obama. It is improving, albeit more slowly than he — or the country — would like. That could change, but if it doesn’t, Romney is not going to run away with this election.

I’d expect 1992-in-reverse to be Romney’s best-case scenario: a distrusted challenger against a somewhat weak incumbent, winning by low single digits. Perhaps his convention will go as swimmingly as Clinton’s, and Obama’s as poorly as Bush’s. In that case, Romney might break out at that point, followed by a last-minute Obama surge.

Overall, we just haven’t seen the type of event that would cause this campaign to break open one way or the other. If I had to bet, given the overall dynamics of the campaigns, I’d say we won’t see much net movement until the end.

Postscript: Incidentally, challenger spending does matter quite a bit in congressional elections. Let’s take the (base 10) logarithm of the challenger’s spending, and look at the effect on challenger spending. Basically, the increase from $1,000 to $10,000 is considered a point increase in spending, the increase from $10,000 to $100,000 is considered another point, from $100,000 to $1,000,000 another point, and so forth: 

This gives us a very nice fit; our adjusted r-square is now up to .49. We know an awful lot of other factors affect campaigns: the district’s PVI, the candidates’ ideologies and experience, and so forth. We wouldn’t expect the r-square to get much higher than this for any single variable.

This relationship makes sense. If we think about these races as referenda on the incumbent, then what the incumbent does in terms of spending at the end has little effect, except in those rare circumstances where an unpopular incumbent can disqualify his opponent. People know who the incumbent is, and what he’s done for the past few years.

The same is not true of the challenger, and it makes a big difference if she can put together enough money to raise a credible campaign; people will only rarely vote for a completely unknown entity. At about $50,000 a challenger can put out yard signs, at about $100,000, a campaign team, and at about $500,000, an advertising campaign.

But at a certain point, people know the challenger as well. They’ve seen her signs, read her literature, and seen her commercials. Her argument is made, and more spending won’t bring her any benefit either.

Sean Trende is Senior Elections Analyst for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at [email protected].

  This story was originally published by RealClearPolitics.

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