Those ad dollars in Iowa didn't go far.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Ads Just Don't Work in the 2016 Campaign

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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To a foreign observer, perhaps the most incomprehensible aspect of the U.S. presidential election is the advertising. It's omnipresent and hellishly expensive, but it doesn't appear to do anything tangible for the candidates. It certainly doesn't win more votes for those who spend more.

Based on ad spending estimates from Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries, a vote cost the top 10 candidates $107 on average. In the general election of 2015, U.K. parties spent an average of 42 U.S. cents per vote.

This factoid seems tailor-made for Bernie Sanders, who promises to do his best to reverse the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision -- which allowed unlimited spending by super PACs on candidates' behalf. Even Jeb Bush, the candidate with the most expensive votes to date, now says he'd "eliminate" the ruling and calls the super PAC system "ridiculous."

I don't think overturning Citizens United is the solution, though. Candidates need to recognize that in the 21st century, the TV spots make about as much sense as shredding the cash.

CMAG data show a wide distribution of advertising budgets, especially among Republican candidates, some of whom had decided to concentrate on just one of the early voting states.

An Advertising Bonanza
Ad spending by candidates and affiliated super PACs in the first two primary states, 2016
 
Source: CMAG, author's calculations

The spending, however, was practically uncorrelated with the voting results. The correlation between the candidates' total ad spending in the two states and the number of votes cast for them is just 0.31, not enough for any kind of causality. Even after removing the outliers, Bush and Carly Fiorina, the correlation rises to only 0.43 -- still too low to indicate a connection. As a result, the "cost" of a vote in terms of advertising spending varies widely among candidates. It's been astronomical for Bush, but some other Republicans have spent hundreds of dollars to get each vote, and even the Democrats' $30 plus is nothing to sneeze at.

Money Walks
The "cost" of a vote cast for a specific candidate in terms of advertising spending*
 
Sources: CMAG, Republican Party, Democratic Party, author's calculations
* The Democratic Party doesn't report candidates' vote counts in Iowa, so those numbers are inferred from the turnout and each candidate's share of the vote

The ads, in other words, don't work too well. It could be because of how uniformly bad, humorless, often indistinguishable they are. According to CMAG, the most-shown ad in Iowa and New Hampshire was Donald Trump's "Great Again." It goes over Trump's basic slogans on terrorism and immigration and turns to the candidate himself only in the final seconds, to have him promise to "make America great again." It was shown 3,717 times, and I think all of these audience contacts were wasted. Trump, who gets all the free media attention he wants, has repeated the same talking points countless times in debates and interviews -- in his own voice, which should do a charismatic candidate like Trump more good than having them read by an announcer.

I can't see how playing Simon & Garfunkel's 1968 song "America" 1,294 times in the two states could have helped mobilize thousands of overwhelmingly young supporters for Bernie Sanders. I don't think many of them had heard it before or associated anything with it, one way or another.

Americans are inundated by ads in general. Perhaps that explains why the candidates want to promote themselves the way big corporations promote junk food or personal injury lawyers dangle tantalizing settlements. Yet the commercials actually aimed at selling something are designed to be memorable. They have funny punchlines and catchy music. The politicians evidently take themselves much too seriously for any of that. None of them appears to have the guts for something like this short film in which an actor played the president of Mongolia, and the president himself played his barber.

I wonder what would happen if one of the candidates suddenly stopped advertising altogether, but continued with other campaign activities -- knocking on doors, sending out personalized mailings, giving interviews, conducting town halls, taking part in debates. My guess is that little would change, at least in those states that draw as much media attention as did Iowa and New Hampshire. I think Bush is trying something of the kind, albeit timidly: His ad spending went down dramatically from Iowa to New Hampshire and -- surprise! -- he won almost six times as many votes in the Granite State.

Advertising restrictions such as the ones that drive down the "cost" of a vote in the U.K. are not necessary for the candidates to realize the traditional, TV-heavy approach no longer works. They should be able to figure it out for themselves. When they do, Citizens United may no longer matter.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net