Predict Presidential Election Results

Mar 31, 2018

Women Leading Research: Lingling Zhang

Lingling ZhangSMITH BRAIN TRUST – To win elections, there is a right way for political campaigns to spend their money, according to new research. The winning strategy calls for swaying undecided voters with mass media messages – television ads and untargeted digital ads in channels like Twitter – and hitting the ground with grassroots campaigns to mobilize a partisan base to go vote.

Lingling Zhang, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, and co-author Doug J. Chung of Harvard Business School, studied U.S. presidential campaigns for elections from 2004 through 2012.

“It’s a money game,” Zhang says. The researchers took a data-driven approach to look at the effectiveness of different campaign channels. Most campaign dollars are spent on television advertising and grassroots efforts, where campaigns send volunteers door-to-door or to public areas like shopping center parking lots to have one-on-one conversations with voters.

“Social media is relatively a new phenomenon, and typically it doesn’t cost that much. The other two channels take up the vast majority of the resources, so that’s why we were very interested in looking at the return on investment for those,” Zhang says. 

The research reveals that both television ads and grassroots efforts can successfully influence election outcomes. But the different channels work on different segments of voters.

Television advertising works really well for people who are on the margin. For people who do not have a strong political preference before they enter the poll, television advertising is more effective, Zhang says. And for those who already have strong partisan ties, grassroots campaigns work really well to get them to show their support by voting.

“Our research is not saying you should do one vs. the other,” Zhang says. “Instead, we are saying if you are going to spend money on those channels, this is how you should intelligently allocate those resources.”

“Mobilize your likely voters by sending people from your field operations to where your support already is,” she says. “You want to get those people out to vote. Then for the states where a lot of people are still debating how they are going to vote, you really should spend a lot of mass media advertising money to influence them.”

However, the opposite is true for ads supporting candidates paid for by special interest groups, called PACs (political action committees). The researchers attribute this to the difference in advertisement content: PAC advertising is predominately negative and tends to attack rivals rather than promote the preferred candidates. “We find that it works better with people who already have a strong preference,” Zhang says. “If you’re targeting people in the middle, you should use a more positive tone to promote your own candidate rather than demeaning the other.” 

Zhang says she was surprised to find that grassroots campaigns have a much greater effect on voting outcome than advertising campaigns. She thinks this is probably because both parties advertise somewhat similarly in terms of their spending, but there is a lot more variation in where candidates focus their grassroots efforts. 

The results can be generalized to other elections and may also suggest implications for campaigns via digital media channels. Zhang says campaigns could send targeted messages on Facebook, Instagram and with emails to mobilize partisan voters, and use broad untargeted messages via Twitter, for example, to sway undecided voters. 

Read more: “The Air War Versus the Ground Game: An Analysis of Multi-Channel Marketing in U.S. Presidential Elections” is a working paper.

Lingling Zhang is an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Research interests: The effect of marketing strategies using data-driven empirical models; digital and multi-channel marketing; and econometric modeling of large quantity field data.

Selected accomplishments: Presented research at the INFORMS Marketing Science Conference and the Marketing Dynamics Conference; Fellow, American Marketing Association-Sheth Foundation Doctoral Consortium.

Women Leading Research: Lingling Zhang

About this series: The Smith School faculty is celebrating Women’s History Month 2018 in partnership with ADVANCE, an initiative to transform the University of Maryland by investing in a culture of inclusive excellence. Daily faculty spotlights support activities from the school’s Office of Diversity Initiatives, starting with the seventh annual Women Leading Women forum on March 1, 2018.

Other fearless ideas from:  Rajshree Agarwal  |  Ritu Agarwal  |  T. Leigh Anenson  |  Kathryn M. Bartol  |  Christine Beckman  |  Margrét Bjarnadóttir  |  M. Cecilia Bustamante  |  Jessica M. Clark  |  Rellie Derfler-Rozin  |  Waverly Ding  |  Wedad J. Elmaghraby  |  Rosellina Ferraro  |  Rebecca Hann  | Amna Kirmani  |  Hanna Lee  |  Hui Liao  |  Jennifer Carson Marr  |  Wendy W. Moe  |  Courtney Paulson  |  Louiqa Raschid  |  Rebecca Ratner  |  Debra L. Shapiro  |  M. Susan Taylor  |  Niratcha (Grace) Tungtisanont  |  Vijaya Venkataramani  |  Janet Wagner  |  Yajin Wang  |  Yajun Wang  |  Liu Yang  |  Jie Zhang  |  Lingling Zhang

Image credit: Carsten Reisinger



About the Expert(s)

Professor Zhang received her doctorate in Marketing from Harvard Business School in 2016. She is interested in studying competitive marketing strategies using empirical models including industrial organization. Her research focuses on business-to-business marketing, multi-channel marketing, and digital marketing. She has presented research at the INFORMS Marketing Science Conference and the Marketing Dynamics Conference. She teaches statistical programming in the MS Marketing Analytics program and marketing research in the undergraduate program.

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