Institution for Social and Policy Studies

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Thinking Socially About Campaign Finance

Incumbent President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney waged the most expensive election in history last year. Logic would have it that the more money spent on political ads, the greater the likelihood that a candidate will win, but the math isn’t that simple. Romney’s camp spent $1M more than Obama’s—and we all know how that worked out.

There are various documented moderators of the relationship between campaign spending and voting behavior: ad timing, ad placement, ad sponsors, ad audience, etc., but surprisingly, there is little evidence that political spending swings political races, The 2012 presidential election saw a “record pulverizing” year for political campaign spending, according to Erika Fowler, a Director of the Wesleyan Media Project, a research group that tracks campaign advertising in federal elections.

So, why are political camps and their donors ostensibly wasting their money? The answer may lie in the psychology of persuasion.

In 1984, social psychologist Robert Cialdini outlined  the six overarching principles of persuasion that he had observed during a three-year period of infiltrating the compliance industry. Political campaigns attempt to harness at least four: social proof, consistency, authority, and – of course – liking. Respectively, these principles attempt to convince voters that a candidate is popular; has views consistent with their beliefs and values; possesses expertise; and is familiar, trustworthy, and respectable.

If candidates were presenting themselves to voters in a vacuum devoid of competition, they’d have no trouble winning people over; however, the oppositional nature of campaign season presents politicians with a challenge not readily addressed in Cialdini’s or other psychologists’ work: a competitive race that calls for as much (or more) defense as offense.

A politician’s worst fear during campaign season is being outgunned, outshown, or merely surprised by an opponent’s messaging. Without knowing what information opponents are strategically holding in their back pockets, candidates spend money promoting themselves or attacking their opponents as an insurance policy against such threats. As such, political advertising has become more preemptive damage control than proactive solicitation.

This notion of defensive persuasion raises a number of psychological and political science research questions that address the power of influence in competitive contexts and the various strategies employed to persuade and dissuade voters. For instance, what factors predict when a candidate will first sling mud against his or her opponents? In turn, can we effectively predict the timing, tone, and even exact language of a competitor’s counterattack?

The current discourse on campaign spending is saturated by raw figures depicting who spent how much and in what markets. Including more analysis of the dynamic relationship among competitors’ campaign messages would allow for a richer discussion of the interpersonal nature of politics that could illuminate how and in what strategic contexts campaign advertising funds are deployed. After all, this is social science.

Blog contributor 
Graduate Student
Area of study 
Political Behavior