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The surprising ineffectiveness of Super PACs in 2016 (so far)

So far, $60 million has been spent on ads in 2016. It appears to have bought nothing.

Presidential candidate Jeb Bush.
Presidential candidate Jeb Bush.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The Wesleyan Media Project has released its latest numbers on presidential advertising spending, and the headline finding is that "Super PACs Dominate Airwaves." Its key takeaways: At $60 million so far, ad spending is way up from both 2007 and 2011. And most of the money (80 percent) is coming from Super PACs.

But the more puzzling takeaway is just how little all that money appears to be buying.

Below, I've plotted the amount of money that the Wesleyan Media Project estimates was spent on ads supporting each of the candidates on the x-axis, and the candidates' national polling average on the y-axis.

Graphic by Lee Drutman. Source: Wesleyan Media Project analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data, RCP.

The big thing that jumps out is the contrast between Jeb Bush (lots of spending, low poll numbers) and Donald Trump (no spending, high poll numbers).

These two poles of the distribution tell us something, but it's also important to observe that of the four candidates who have so far spent the most on ads (Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Chris Christie), only one (Rubio) is doing reasonably well. By contrast, of the four highest-polling candidates, three have spent very little on ads.

Why? Here are three potential reasons:

  1. It's all about the earned media.
  2. Campaign ads don't work all that well.
  3. The Republican voters are at war with their donors.

While Super PAC advertising has bought very little (so far), this shouldn't entirely absolve Super PACs of altering our elections for the worse, since they have profound impacts on both who chooses to run and how they fundraise. But it does point out the limits of what money can buy.

It's all about the "earned media"

Perhaps the most obvious explanation is that "earned media" is better than "paid media." That is, paying to run television ads is no substitute for earning press coverage. Voters tune out ads, but they pay attention to the news.

And Donald Trump is all over the news, and has been for many months. While there are many possible explanations for Trump's popularity, political scientist John Sides has made a pretty convincing case that widespread press coverage has been a key element.

However you slice it, Trump has dominated the headlines. His remarkable performance art version of campaign-as-endless-provocation seems designed to attract controversy, which reporters can never get enough of. No campaign ad, not even the bizarre new video of Carly Fiorina playing with dogs (in which she eats a Milk-Bone on camera and tells a dog that Obama "ate one of your cousins; vote Republican"), has the same controversy-generating publicity that comes from repeatedly insulting Mexicans, Muslims, and Megyn Kelly.

Campaign ads don't work all that well

Campaigns spend millions on campaign ads because that's what their consultants tell them to do. Many of these same consultants also produce and place the ads.

But the evidence suggests that the ads' effect is far less than consultants would let on. Political scientist Dan Hopkins analyzed the effects of political ads in the 2012 campaign, and found a very tiny effect, consistent with other research on the topic. Hopkins's straightforward conclusion was this: "In all likelihood, even major shifts in advertising would have produced only minor shifts toward the candidate benefiting from those shifts." He also found that the effectiveness of ads was less in 2012 than it was in 2008.

Possibly this is because people are getting their media from sources other than broadcast and cable television. Possibly it's because people are tuning out ads more than ever, or just skipping through them. But whatever the reason, running ads doesn't appear to be a particularly fruitful strategy for anybody other than the consultants making and selling them. These latest numbers just hit that point home once again.

Republican voters are at war with their big donors

Another way to interpret these findings is that the big donors really wanted Jeb Bush and voters didn't. Or: The Republican donor class really wanted to push an agenda of lower taxes, smaller government, and expanded immigration and thought enough money funding enough ads could make it happen. The voters apparently feel differently.

Now that Trump's brand of populism has brought that conflict out into the open, no amount of nicely produced video can reconcile it.  Republican voters are unlikely to be convinced, no matter how many times they see footage of Jeb Bush walking on factory floors as if he were going to create jobs. Voters may not be fools after all.

This doesn't absolve Super PACS

While Super PAC ad spending hasn't bought much in the Republican primary, the more global worry remains that the fundraising exigencies of the Super PAC campaign era push candidates to concentrate their energies on courting large donors, instead of building a large base of support among small donors. This both shifts candidates' priorities and feeds into candidates' decisions to run or not to run.

While large donors don't buy policies directly, they do set the acceptable policy boundaries, which limits the types of issues candidates can talk about. These concerns are greater in Senate and House races, which don't attract the same media attention. But think about it: If Trump were out raising money for Super PACs, he'd probably be selling a different set of policy positions.

Money is not irrelevant. It determines who can run and how they talk about issues. But money is also not everything. Candidates and issues do actually matter, at least sometimes.