October 12, 2015
In the pre-cable news, pre-Internet era political advertising really mattered. Each candidate only received so much coverage. If you wanted to introduce your candidate or tear down another, ads were the best way.
Even in the social media era they still have a place. John Kasich successfully introduced himself to New Hampshire voters a couple months back, rising in the polls and giving him just enough momentum to break into the main debate tier nationally.
As recently as 2012, negative ads run against Newt Gingrich helped Mitt Romney win the nomination, and ads run against Romney in response would plague the nominee in the fall.
However, it’s no accident many of the most memorable political ads are now at least a couple decades old. Where they used to stand alone, saying something a candidate might not want to himself, they now function as part of a larger messaging operation, attempting to tie in with what candidates are saying on their many TV appearances.
With a more diffuse audience, in many cases fast-forwarding through ads, any approach that doesn’t tie in with the greater message risks getting lost. Even when negative ad season begins as actual voting approaches, the best hits will tie in to the overall narrative.
The polls that count are the ones at the ballot box. With actual voting still over 100 days away, we’re doing some heavy guessing. If current polling at least shows how people would vote if their primary or caucus was now, we can draw a few solid conclusions:
Issue-Based Controversy Helps
As we know, the GOP has a crowded field. Standing out from the pack is very difficult, but raising a stink makes it easier. Any candidate not currently jousting will see at least a moderate loss in support as attention shifts elsewhere.
This is not a sign of a GOP apocalypse. Most candidates have pretty decent favorability ratings among their own party (there are important exceptions like Jeb Bush). Ben Carson (rated most favorably), Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio (among others) consistently score well among Republicans.
With voting some time away and many of the candidates holding similar positions on many issues, most voters are seriously considering at least a couple of choices. A week or two in the spotlight does a couple of things:
First, it gets them several more contact points with the average relatively informed voter. Since the candidates are generally popular, more visibility is more time to remind voters why they like you.
Second, the exposure is a chance for the candidate to show how they can handle the media and how effective they might be in a general election campaign or governing. It’s important to note it’s not necessary for all or even most primary voters to approve of how the candidate does.
They merely need to hit their mark with the voters who had them as a first, second or maybe third choice.
The first and most obvious example is Donald Trump. Debates don’t help him, because he’s sharing the free media with everyone else. For most candidates, it’s extra exposure, not for Trump, who only gets a fraction of the talk time and has to respond to other candidates and the moderators.
His numbers have dropped after each debate, before rebounding as he re-asserted his free media dominance. In the aftermath of the last debate, many thought Trump had already peaked. His numbers dropped from high 20s, low 30s to low 20s.
Well, he’s mostly recovered. The CBS News poll released over the weekend has him at 27%, exactly where they had him prior to the last debate. The Real Clear Politics average shows Trump at 23.7% with the arrow pointing up.
What happened? He’s back to grabbing a large share of the available media and has chosen an issue to take a controversial position on. This time it’s Syria. While many GOP candidates are decrying Russian influence in the Middle East, Trump welcomes it, saying Russia should deal with Assad and ISIS for a while.
The Donald still thinks President Obama showed weakness and believes he and Putin will get along just fine. You may not agree with this line of reasoning, but many voters do. Taken independently, none of his points are ridiculous, even if the combination requires some suspension of disbelief.
Almost all GOP voters disapprove of the administration’s policy, so that’s an easy point of agreement. But many are in no rush to send troops back in. By saying we should just let a few of our enemies beat each other up, Trump is saying something many are thinking.
It’s a hard policy to articulate in a debate, but given hours of free media, he’s doing well. Again, if you’re opposed to the idea of relying on a president to talk to Putin autocrat to autocrat, this doesn’t work, but it’s a great way to keep the Trumpists on board.
Given the failures by both parties in that region over the past 15 years, he has a very sympathetic audience. Trump can point out this is one of the few things we haven’t tried yet.
One small rung down from Trump is Ben Carson, now the undisputed number two in the polls. Carson supposedly had a mixed result in the first debate and a bad one in the second. After the first debate, his numbers went up, as it was his introduction to many voters.
Higher poll numbers begat more free media, which continued to help his numbers. As Nate Silver and others have explained this phenomenon, it was a positive feedback loop.
The second debate did not go very well and right afterwards Carson lost a couple/few points. Soon after he recovered and is now back to full strength, at 21% in the CBS poll and 18.4% in the RCP average.
His catalyst was issue controversy, first over the advisability of a Muslim president, then over gun control and how to respond to a mass killer. These keep Carson in the news, appearing on Sunday shows and debating the news media.
Disagreeing with talking heads, particularly those connected to a more liberal network is usually a GOP winner. Carson stays calm in these idea confrontations, giving people who appreciate his temperament and logic more of what they already like. Nobody gets as much time as Trump, but Carson is getting enough bandwidth.
Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio struggled to stay visible between the first and second debates and saw their polling slide accordingly. Each have taken steps to prevent a reoccurrence as they wait for the next one.
Fiorina was in front of viewers on a regular basis in the first 10-14 days after the debate, mostly due to her statements on Planned Parenthood, defunding and the sale of fetus parts. Absent the controversy over her description of the videos during the debate, this might have gone away more quickly.
Opponents on the left and some in the media seized on the potential exaggeration and Fiorina got more air time. As a result, her debate poll bounce lasted a couple weeks longer than the first time.
Once John Boehner announced he was stepping down and the drama in the House started accelerating, Carly was crowded out. Her numbers have moved south accordingly, now down to 6% in consecutive national polls.
As she moves into partial eclipse, Ted Cruz is starting to take advantage. The House contest between mainstream conservatives and the Freedom Caucus is a Cruz issue. Even if many Republican voters are on the establishment side of this debate, his current and potential supporters are not.
The CBS poll has Cruz at 9%, his highest showing in a few weeks. Overall, he’s beginning to trend up again after bottoming out at 5% post-debate. For all four of the primary outsider candidates, the formula is similar.
With three of the four very visible over the past week or two, the group now sits at a combined 63% in the CBS poll, as high as they’ve reached at any time so far.
As long as this is the primary way to get the interest of voters, the establishment candidates are at a disadvantage. Rubio is retaining the majority of his post-debate improvement and with Fiorina’s fade is now 3rd in the RCP average at 9.9%
It would appear the majority of this support is from the mainstream conservative side. Unlike Jeb Bush, Rubio has avoided unintentional controversial statements and has managed to exchange words with Trump without getting the worst of it.
As a result, Rubio has surpassed Bush in most polling. The gap isn’t huge, but Rubio is regularly ahead.
The challenge for the candidates closer to the cut line (Kasich, Christie, Paul, Huckabee) is to get attention. Paul and Huckabee can play the issue controversy game but need to choose things they haven’t said before. That’s not easy. Since neither are viewed as new or strong contenders the barrier is higher.
Kasich and Christie aren’t getting enough oxygen and won’t until they say things that are more compelling, but as establishment options need to stay responsible sounding. Their relatively week position in the polls is more because of this trap than their weakness. There just isn’t enough happening for them to push national numbers yet.
Hillary’s Media Blitz Worked
Overall, Hillary Clinton’s poll advantage is as strong as any time in the past 6-8 weeks. After consistently losing ground all summer, she’s stabilized.
Part of this has to do with Biden. He is pulling far more voters from Hillary than Bernie, so when his numbers are surging that impacts her quickly. Right now, Biden’s momentum has stopped.
Over the summer, she was consistently losing supporters to Sanders. This happened before and after Biden became a factor. For the most part, this is not continuing. While Bernie is holding the support he had on Labor Day, he hasn’t gone much further.
For Sanders, the problem remains minority voters and to a lesser extent women. Even in head-to-head matchups with Biden out of the way, Bernie does very well with white men, particularly those who are more liberal.
Very progressive white women are next most likely to pick Sanders. Each week from June through August, a larger percentage of these groups abandoned the front runner for the new guy, leaving Hillary with more moderate white women and minorities.
Her remaining supporters are enough to win the nomination, but there was no guarantee they would stick. This is where the media blitz has worked. Already favorably disposed to Hillary, not dying to support an undeclared Biden, not naturally drawn to Sanders, these voters were looking for a reason to stay with their original choice.
By appearing in a number of places over a few week period, Hillary upped her exposure and went at least partially back on offense. She’s not guaranteed to hold them for the duration, but the other candidates will have to work aggressively for those votes. Hillary will not give them up by staying quiet.
As the numbers are showing, Hillary is capable of holding on to them. The burden is now on the other candidates. They can’t count on the media to do the rest of their work for them.
Biden Tails Off When He Backs Away
We don’t know exactly what will happen to Joe Biden’s numbers if/when he actually enters the race. Perhaps he’s more popular as a thought than a candidate and the extra scrutiny will hurt him. Many late entrants fade once they actually begin running.
History says Biden is better in theory than reality. Numbers from the past several weeks indicate the opposite may be true. At a minimum, voters are responding better to Biden when he seems ready to jump in than when he backs away.
Prior to late July, early August few people thought Biden was a likely candidate. Hillary’s email/server problems hadn’t visibly impacted her candidacy yet, she still had an enormous lead on any opponent. In polls taken during that time, she usually had double the combined support of Biden and Sanders.
But in early August it became clear that Hillary did actually have classified emails on her server. Bernie was beginning to surge in the polls and it leaked out that Beau Biden encouraged his dad to run before he passed away.
The confluence of these events created a Biden buzz. The consensus was if Biden was going to enter, the decision would come by early September. His numbers began to go up. After averaging 10-12% in most national polling for the past several months, he started flirting with the 20% level by late August, surpassing it three times by Labor Day.
After that push, which included several appearances over Labor Day weekend and a well-received spot with Stephen Colbert, many were expecting an imminent announcement. It didn’t happen, as the decision was pushed back to late September, early October.
Biden’s numbers dropped. From consistently over 20%, he was back into the mid-teens. There were bright spots in individual states, but overall the momentum was reversed.
As the next pseudo-deadline approached and Biden once again seemed ready to decide, the polls rebounded. CNN announced Joe could wait until the last minute to join the first debate. Many anticipated seeing him on stage.
From late September to early October, he once again cleared 20% in three consecutive national polls. Then news leaked out that he would not participate in the debate and could postpone his decision another few weeks. Back down again.
It appears Biden’s floor, at least until it’s too late to take him seriously as a candidate is in the 15-17% range nationally, higher selected states. We don’t know where his ceiling is. When he appears likely to enter, numbers go up, but he’s backed off before we can see if he would have continued to advance.
The difference is whether he’s a true potential front runner with voters listing him as a second choice converting to Biden when he’s for real, or if he’s a Hillary spoiler with a support cap in the low-mid 20s.
We won’t know until he stops vacillating. It’s tempting to think if a likely candidate is more popular than a possible one, a definite candidate is even better.
People Are Paying Attention
All of the above points are based on the idea that most voters are actually already following the election. If that’s not true, what I’m seeing as logical voter reactions to events and comments over the past several weeks is in fact lots of noise, falsely interpreted as a signal.
People are paying attention. This doesn’t mean they are reading 40 articles a day or watching 8 hours of cable news, but by any metric voters are watching.
Debate ratings for the first two GOP shows were three to four times the highest rated from 2008 or 2012. The CBS poll indicates 70% of respondents are following the election, up from less than half the previous two cycles.
Beyond that, there is no way these candidates would appear so frequently on late night talk shows and other media platforms if nobody was interested. Colbert is trying to establish himself in David Letterman’s chair, not provide a public service.
People may lose interest at some point, after all, it’s still another 13 months until Election Day. However, now that it’s extremely acceptable for serous presidential candidates to appear on a variety of entertainment platforms and programmers are so desperate for content, this should continue for a bit.
Surviving candidates will have an unprecedented ability to build their brand and control it in ways that better insulate them from attacks from opponents. By becoming a familiar presence in our living rooms and on our smartphones, a hit piece won’t immediately sink them.
While money always helps, contenders will have plenty of free media at their disposal to respond. The sheer amount of airtime to fill virtually guarantees it. The effective candidates are those who are comfortable defending themselves and pushing an agenda during an interview.
While not the natural that Trump, Carson, Fiorina, Rubio, Sanders and Biden (among others) are, Hillary has at least shown an ability to improve her position if put into the proper (Saturday Night Live) situation. Jeb Bush has yet to find a good media approach. This puts him at a distinct disadvantage.
Like it or not, being able to effectively reach your base of voters or potential voters through free media is likely the most important part of this cycle. When evaluating candidates, keep in mind how effectively they are doing this and what their potential for improvement is.