“Big outside political groups with an unprecedented river of money had appeared poised to be pivotal players in the 2012 elections. So far, these super PACs are looking less than super.” That is the lead of a surprising story, “Super PAC Influence Falls Short of Aims,” that appeared recently in The Wall Street Journal.
Could this be true? Research by Keller Fay for the National Journal being conducted during this political season suggests yes. Our Conversation Nation research, conducted continuously and published weekly, looks at the word-of-mouth dynamics of the presidential race. As the race heats up, media and marketing plays a big role in people’s conversations about the candidates. But it is the earned media — news coverage — that has people talking; ads themselves play a far more modest role.
Three-quarters of people’s word of mouth conversations about both President Obama and Governor Romney include something people see on TV, or on the internet, or in print media, with TV playing the biggest role. This is far higher than the 50 percent we normally see for conversations about consumer products and services. TV plays the biggest role, but it is TV programs/news that provide the biggest spark when it comes to what people talk about, with TV ads coming in far behind. People are three times more likely to talk about what they see on TV news than the ads they see (33 percent vs. 11 percent). In the battleground states where so much of the ad blitz is focused, the difference is narrower, but even there TV news sparks more conversations than the ads by a margin of 31 percent to 14 percent.
Over the course of the past month, we see that word of mouth about Obama is more positive (43 percent) than negative (37 percent); for Romney, it tilts much more negative (43 percent) than positive (31 percent). When we look at topics of conversation for each candidate by polarity, the impact of ads does not make any difference. TV ads are talked about in almost identical numbers when the conversations about Obama and Romney are positive (13 percent and 12 percent of the time, respectively), and when they are negative (11 percent and 12 percent, respectively). In each case, the WOM being sparked by the earned media of television news is about three times as great.
While both candidates have spent a lot of time and effort fundraising, at the end of the day political operatives understand that the key to success in a presidential election is the persuasion that comes from personal contacts, either from the campaign or from people talking to other people they know personally. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight has reported that an analysis he conducted just after the 2008 election found that “in 2008, about a fourth of all voters were contacted in some way by the Obama campaign. Mr. McCain’s campaign contacted 18 percent of general-election voters,” and that “each marginal 10-point advantage in contact rate translated into a marginal 3-point gain in the popular vote in that state.” Many of these contacts happened when local volunteers call or go speak personally with their neighbors.
While there was a lot of focus on the impact that money would play in this campaign when the election season started, the results to date are centered far more around the performance of the candidates themselves. That is the narrative that is driving the news coverage, and entering into the day-to-day conversations of voters.
Thus far, it’s not the Super PACs that are driving the outcome. Instead, it’s the face-to-face conversations that have been super-charged by earned media coverage.