On December 23, 2015, in the middle of her “Christmas Eve eve” broadcast, Rachel Maddow took stock of an apparent shift in American politics. “This year, for whatever reason, ads basically don’t work. Spending lots of money on ads doesn’t seem to have an effect on the polls,” the MSNBC host said, referring to the Republican presidential primary underway. “Donald Trump has spent less ad money than any other significant candidate. He spent, I think, zero dollars on TV ads specifically.” And yet, Trump was leading the polls. Jeb Bush had spent more than $35 million. “For his troubles, he is 3 percent in the polls.” Maddow rounded up her favorite ads of the cycle thus far, and concluded the segment by saying, “We are still good at telling these stories about American politics, and that is something. And someday it will matter again.”
The idea that campaign ads didn’t matter—or didn’t work, anyway—had surfaced early in the race. “The most conspicuous truism that Trump has smashed to bits,” The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove wrote a couple weeks before Maddow’s broadcast, “is that whoever outspends his competitors on media consultants for brilliantly persuasive television commercials, and the savvy purchase of advertising time, also possesses an intimidating edge.” The following month, Paul Waldman at The Week called TV ads “less important than ever,” concluding that “this election must surely make TV advertising a less appealing tool.”
The failure of campaign ads became the conventional wisdom over the ensuing months, with the general election seen as the ultimate judge. “Nearly everywhere the race is competitive, Mrs. Clinton has run far more ads,” Lynn Vavreck, a political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, noted in The New York Times. The massive ad imbalance is, she wrote, “a rare chance to learn two things: whether all the effort exerted by Mrs. Clinton is moving the flag, and whether Mr. Trump’s method is a good substitute for a conventional ad campaign.” She concluded that Trump was letting Clinton “dominate the ad war in competitive battleground states and it seems to be costing him votes.”
Clinton’s ads didn’t do enough to win her the White House, but Vavreck objects to the notion that they didn’t make a difference. “That is faulty, faulty, logic, because again, you don’t know what the counter-factual is where she’s not advertising,” she told me. “The race was incredibly close overall. You just don’t want to be making big inferences about what was effective and what was not based on a race that was essentially a coin flip.” Vavreck was also skeptical that Trump’s competitors in the Republican primary ran worthless ad campaigns. “Just because those guys couldn’t beat him in the primaries with all that advertising, it doesn’t mean those ads didn’t have an effect,” she said. “Without that anti-Trump advertising, he might have shored up the nomination even earlier.”
But even if Trump proved ads didn’t matter as much in the 2016 race as in previous campaigns, experts are confident that it’s an anomaly. Ads will have plenty of utility in next year’s midterms, they say, and Democrats are already deploying them to great effect in their campaign to take back the House of Representatives.
Last week was a good one for Mark Putnam. The Democratic consultant generated a lot of buzz with his introductory campaign ad for Democrat Amy McGrath, a retired lieutenant colonel hoping to unseat Republican Representative Andy Barr in Kentucky. “This Is the Kind of Campaign Ad That Keeps Paul Ryan Up at Night,” raved Mother Jones. Even the conservative site Townhall conceded the ad was “utterly fantastic.”
The spot was well produced, but Putnam is the first to admit that its power comes from McGrath’s narrative about her path-breaking military service. “What still matters more than anything else in politics is having a great candidate with a great story to tell,” he told me.
Putnam doesn’t think Trump’s success in eschewing a traditional media strategy is applicable to down-ballot races. “There is an enormous difference between a presidential campaign and every single other type of election,” he said. “Drawing any conclusions about the efficacy of television advertising because of Donald Trump is a fundamental misreading of how voters consume information.”
Of course, it’s in Putnam’s professional interest to convince politicians that ads still matter—that they’re worth spending millions on. But Travis Ridout, a government professor at Washington State University, agrees with him. “There is a different dynamic at play,” said Ridout, who co-directs the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads. “When you’re dealing with, say, a House race, oftentimes the challenger isn’t someone people have heard of before. Advertising can be very effective at introducing a candidate.”
But at the presidential level, the importance of ads remains an open question thanks to the sitting president. “Trump was and still is a force of nature who is uniquely talented at getting himself attention and can do that through all sorts of mediums,” Putnam told me. “He is extraordinarily rare.” Indeed, no other presidential candidate in modern U.S. history succeeded without engaging in an ad-spending war. Trump’s reliance on social media, and the free media coverage generated by his massive rallies, may well have established a new blueprint for future national campaigns—at least those run by insurgents and outsiders.
But Fred Davis doesn’t see that happening. A Republican ad maker who worked for John Kasich’s presidential campaign, he said commercials “will remain the primary tool by which you communicate with voters.” Whereas “Donald Trump didn’t need to run one ad,” he said, “That isn’t going to happen again unless someone like Oprah runs for office—someone of that magnitude.” He added, “What will be interesting to watch will be the tone of the ads. Will they be more Donald Trump-like? Will they be wilder and crazier? I think yes, probably.”
Vavreck is skeptical. “I don’t think this is a new equilibrium,” she said. “I think it’s a blip.” Most candidates won’t have Trump’s appetite for generating media controversy—to embrace his conclusion in The Art of the Deal that “bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all.” “I’m not sure your typical political candidate is going to be willing to do that,” Vavreck said. “In order to do that, Trump had to be controversial. He had to say outrageous things nearly every day.”
Ridout offered a simpler reason why few will try to replicate Trump’s strategy: “Most candidates are not that interesting as human beings.”