Confirmation bias is usually defined as when as humans we seek out information that confirms our held beliefs and ignore facts that run counter to those beliefs. It affects how we make decisions at many levels. As human beings we do this because we are more comfortable with hearing things that agree with what we already think.
This bias also exists in how pundits and the media examine what goes on in political campaigns, and it usually means that many times we learn the wrong lessons in our observations.
As I have read recent press reports and analysis of Obama’s spending advantage over McCain in this year’s presidential race, I have noted a constant repetition of what I believe is a myth in politics, and this has been done even by my former colleague Karl Rove in the Wall Street Journal analyzing Obama’s advantage in ad spending.
The myth: Obama won this year’s presidential race in large part because he outspent McCain on television. By selectively picking facts that confirm a belief, this myth has been told far and wide. And it is a fiction.
Yes, Obama had a major spending advantage on television. But as we examine the facts closer, we learn there is no significant relationship to ad buys and vote counts.
This is something I, along with others, studied after the 2004 race, and in that process learned that in a presidential race, paid media buys have little impact on the outcome.
The only advertising that matters are the spots that get taken up by the media and repeated in a news context over and over again. Think to yourself about which spots you remember in this campaign. They are likely the ones that aired very little (Clinton's 3 a.m. ad, McCain's Paris Hilton ad, etc), and these ads had as much recall in places they were never bought as in places they were.
Here are some interesting facts that I hope counter the myth of ad buys in presidential races:
In 2004, John Kerry lost nationally a margin of almost 3 percent. In 2008, Obama won nationally by a margin of nearly 7 percent. So the overall national marginal movement was roughly ten points to Obama’s advantage. Thus, one would conclude that Obama’s movement in states where he overwhelmed McCain with ad spending would be much higher than this 10-point movement, and in states where Obama put little to no ad resources this movement would be less.
Surprise! That didn’t happen.
Take the major ten battleground states where Obama put the vast part of his spot advertising buy (such as Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, etc). In examining Obama’s movement in those states as a whole versus the other 41 jurisdictions you find that there is no difference in movement between those two places. Obama’s margin rose on average ten points in these ten battleground states, and rose on average ten points in the other 41 states (with DC).
Hmmmm. So Obama outspends McCain in those 10 states in total by about a 2 to 1 margin, but has as much movement in places he had no spending advantage.
In fact, some of the biggest movements to Obama were in places no ads were bought locally like Utah and Vermont and California. And one of the bottom moving states to Obama was Ohio where he had a significant spending advantage over McCain.
So that is the broad examination of ad buys, lets take a look at some more interesting specific examples to see if the same pattern is revealed.
Two non-target states provide us with some rather interesting information and those are Delaware and Maryland. Neither state was on anyone list of targets in this years presidential race and resource allocation to those states was very limited. However, counties in those states are effected by ad buys in target states (some Delaware counties are in the Philadelphia media market and some Maryland counties are in the Washington Dc market).
If one only relied on bias, we would conclude that movement in the counties within the target media markets in those two states would be dramatically higher than counties that were outside those buys. Lets take a look at what the facts show.
Obama and his allies outspent McCain by nearly 2 to 1 in the Philadelphia market, but there was no difference in vote movement between non Philly Delaware counties and Philly Delaware counties. Obama got almost the exact same margin jump in both places!
And Maryland provides even a more stark example of this explosion of the ad myth. Obama had a 9 to 1 spending advantage in the Washington DC market! And there was no significant difference in movement for Obama between Maryland counties in the DC media market and Maryland counties in the Baltimore media market where Obama had no local media buys. Let me repeat – Obama received no extra jump in these DC Maryland counties even though he had a 9 to 1 ad spending advantage over McCain.
So what’s our takeaway? Pundits and press and consultants constantly repeat the refrain that spending largely determines Presidential race results and that ad buys have a significant impact on results. This is simply not born out by the facts.
As I learned, having been involved directly in 2004 and looking closely at this year, the major impact on vote movement in Presidential races have to do most with the political environment, big events and moments in the campaign, and message discipline primarily as it is revealed in news reporting on television, radio, print and the internet. While ads and spending can more affect down ballot races or less high profile campaigns, in presidential races their impact is minimal.
I hope this adds to the discussion and maybe help future conduct in and reporting on presidential races. Beware confirmation bias. Just because a belief has been repeated over and over again doesn’t make it true. A good life lesson, too.