SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Success in this year’s midterm elections will come down to each party’s ability to fire up its base to head to the polls to vote. And to do so effectively, Republicans and Democrats should spend their campaign dollars on grassroots marketing, says Lingling Zhang, a marketing professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.
Zhang points to her new research, conducted with Doug J. Chung from Harvard Business School, that breaks down how campaigns should spend their marketing budgets to sway voters. Most campaign money is 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. Zhang and Chung studied past presidential elections, but their findings offer important recommendations for this year’s elections, where control of the House of Representatives will be up for grabs. The Democrats need to win 23 seats to retake the majority.
“The Republicans are in a more vulnerable state this year,” says Zhang. “They hold more seats that are competitive. Vulnerability really doesn’t mean that you will lose a seat, but it definitely means that you will have to put more resources to it. The Republicans and their Super PACs will have to decide who will get the money and where they want to spend it.”
Political pundits agree: The key to victory in November is getting voters to the polls. Each party needs to spend its money most effectively to mobilize its partisan base, and according to Zhang’s research, the two things that have the biggest impact on voter turnout are grassroots ground campaigning efforts and Super PAC (political action committee) advertising, often dubbed attack ads.
“That means candidates need to spend more on sending people to knock on doors to try and talk to voters that are learning toward them,” says Zhang. “They have to convince them that every vote counts in this House election.”
Super PAC ads, which often take a negative tone against an opposing candidate, also resonate with voters who already have their minds made up, says Zhang. Her research shows more neutral TV spots in support of a candidate don’t have the mobilizing effect, but there is a place for that type of advertising for voters who are still on the fence.
The parties will focus their efforts on swing districts, where the seats could go to either Republicans or Democrats. But there are varying levels of competition within these zones, where campaign methods work with differently says Zhang.
“Our research shows that if you’re going to do impersonal advertising, like TV advertising, you should be focusing on the lower end of the middle ground. But with Super PAC ads and on-the-ground campaigning, focus on the areas where races are most contentious.”
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