A study by Wesleyan Media Project published this week took a look at the impact of advertising in the 2016 election and, in the process, highlighted the stunning degree to which Hillary Clinton's campaign was strategically flawed. The most glaring strategic error: her advertising largely neglected policy, obsessively focusing instead on the personal — often in the form of identity politics and personal attacks against Donald Trump. She also almost entirely neglected key Rust Belt states that ultimately lost her the election.
As Heat Street notes, the study demonstrates that Clinton's campaign was "without a doubt one of the worst-run political operations in years." The primary reason, the study concluded, is that her campaign was "devoid of policy discussions in a way not seen in the previous four presidential elections." Rather than talking about policy, Clinton devoted more than 60 percent of her time talking about personal issues, including identity politics and personal attacks.
The study shows that out of the last ten presidential campaigns, including Bush-Gore, Bush-Kerry, Obama-McCain, Obama-Romney, and finally Trump-Clinton, Clinton's ad campaign by far focused less on policy and more on the personal than all the others — and it's not even close. Below is WMP's chart breaking down ad content by policy, personal, and both policy and personal:
Clinton devoted less than a quarter of her ads to actually addressing policy, while Trump dedicated over 70 percent. The next lowest percentage of policy vs. personal out of the ten campaigns is McCain, who nonetheless still dedicated about twice the amount of time to policy than Clinton. All the other candidates spent more than 60 percent of their ads talking about policy.
While she wasn't talking about politics, Clinton was talking about identity politics. She dedicated a around two-thirds of her ads solely to personal themes; over 70 percent when the "both" category is added. The next closest was Obama in 2008, who still only discussed himself less than a fifth of the time.
The study concludes that, contrary to popular theories, ads still had a significant impact on the election. As part of its evidence, WMP looked at the ad campaigns in the Rust Belt states that proved to be Clinton's doom.
Below are graphs comparing Clinton's ad spending versus Trump's by week leading up to the election, with Clinton usually making last-ditch efforts in the final week after almost complete neglect — particularly in Wisconsin and Michigan, where she arrogantly spent nothing until the last week or two. Trump, meanwhile, often spiked his (less sizeable) spending weeks in advance, particularly in those two states:
A few other takeaways from the study as highlighted by WMP:
-The impact of advertising may depend on the larger media environment and knowledge of the candidates. Ie. It’s much more difficult for advertising to have an impact in a media environment that is saturated with sensational media coverage of the campaign—and of two already well-known candidates—but that does not mean that all advertising fails to work.
-Message matters, and a message repeated endlessly does no good unless it resonates with a sufficient number of the right voters. Team Clinton’s message that Trump was unfit for the presidency may not have been enough.
-What happens at the presidential level does not always follow down ballot.
H/T Heat Street.