On December 23, 2015, in the middle of her “Christmas Eve eve” broadcast, Rachel Maddow took stock of an apparent shift in American politics. “This year, for whatever reason, ads basically don’t work. Spending lots of money on ads doesn’t seem to have an effect on the polls,” the MSNBC host said, referring to the Republican presidential primary underway. “Donald Trump has spent less ad money than any other significant candidate. He spent, I think, zero dollars on TV ads specifically.” And yet, Trump was leading the polls. Jeb Bush had spent more than $35 million. “For his troubles, he is 3 percent in the polls.” Maddow rounded up her favorite ads of the cycle thus far, and concluded the segment by saying, “We are still good at telling these stories about American politics, and that is something. And someday it will matter again.”
The idea that campaign ads didn’t matter—or didn’t work, anyway—had surfaced early in the race. “The most conspicuous truism that Trump has smashed to bits,” The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove wrote a couple weeks before Maddow’s broadcast, “is that whoever outspends his competitors on media consultants for brilliantly persuasive television commercials, and the savvy purchase of advertising time, also possesses an intimidating edge.” The following month, Paul Waldman at The Week called TV ads “less important than ever,” concluding that “this election must surely make TV advertising a less appealing tool.”
The failure of campaign ads became the conventionalwisdom over the ensuing months, with the general election seen as the ultimate judge. “Nearly everywhere the race is competitive, Mrs. Clinton has run far more ads,” Lynn Vavreck, a political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, noted in The New York Times. The massive ad imbalance is, she wrote, “a rare chance to learn two things: whether all the effort exerted by Mrs. Clinton is moving the flag, and whether Mr. Trump’s method is a good substitute for a conventional ad campaign.” She concluded that Trump was letting Clinton “dominate the ad war in competitive battleground states and it seems to be costing him votes.”
Clinton’s ads didn’t do enough to win her the White House, but Vavreck objects to the notion that they didn’t make a difference. “That is faulty, faulty, logic, because again, you don’t know what the counter-factual is where she’s not advertising,” she told me. “The race was incredibly close overall. You just don’t want to be making big inferences about what was effective and what was not based on a race that was essentially a coin flip.” Vavreck was also skeptical that Trump’s competitors in the Republican primary ran worthless ad campaigns. “Just because those guys couldn’t beat him in the primaries with all that advertising, it doesn’t mean those ads didn’t have an effect,” she said. “Without that anti-Trump advertising, he might have shored up the nomination even earlier.”
But even if Trump proved ads didn’t matter as much in the 2016 race as in previous campaigns, experts are confident that it’s an anomaly. Ads will have plenty of utility in next year’s midterms, they say, and Democrats are already deploying them to great effect in their campaign to take back the House of Representatives.