Abandoning the Electoral College Would Remake Campaign Spending
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Politics & Elections May 6, 2016

Aban­don­ing the Elec­toral Col­lege Would Remake Cam­paign Spending

A direct-vote sys­tem could have a size­able impact on the behav­iors of vot­ers and candidates.

If the Electoral College was abolished, voters would see different political ads

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Brett Gordon

Wesley Hartmann

If you live in a state like New York or Wyoming, you could eas­i­ly go this entire elec­tion sea­son with­out see­ing a sin­gle TV ad for a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. The states are so solid­ly blue or red that can­di­dates large­ly do not both­er try­ing to sway vot­ers there. How­ev­er, res­i­dents of swing states like Ohio and Flori­da will be pum­meled with polit­i­cal com­mer­cials for months.

This pat­tern is a quirk of the Elec­toral Col­lege, a win­ner-take-all sys­tem that grants every one of a state’s elec­toral votes to the can­di­date who wins that state. And the stakes are very high. In 2000, a tiny frac­tion of votes in a bat­tle­ground state clinched the elec­tion for George W. Bush.

The Elec­toral Col­lege cre­ates these real­ly strong incen­tives for can­di­dates to put lots of mon­ey into states that they can hope­ful­ly tip and to basi­cal­ly ignore every­one else,” says Brett Gor­don, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School.

But what if the coun­try aban­doned the Elec­toral Col­lege and switched to a direct-vote sys­tem, where votes are sim­ply tal­lied nation­al­ly to deter­mine the win­ner? How would that change pres­i­den­tial TV ad strate­gies and spend­ing — which reached near­ly $1 bil­lion in 2012?

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Gor­don and Wes­ley Hart­mann, at the Stan­ford Grad­u­ate School of Busi­ness, cre­at­ed a mod­el to sim­u­late a direct-vote sce­nario. They used their mod­el to exam­ine two recent pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. They found that in the hot­ly con­test­ed 2000 race, spend­ing would have gone up by 13 per­cent. But in the less tight — and like­ly more typ­i­cal — 2004 race, spend­ing would have dropped by 54 percent.

In oth­er words, over­all, a direct-vote sys­tem could great­ly reduce the amount of cam­paign mon­ey devot­ed to TV ads. This could have sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions. Instead of using ads, can­di­dates might try oth­er tac­tics to sway vot­ers, such as adopt­ing more pop­u­lar pol­i­cy positions.

Abol­ish­ing the Elec­toral Col­lege Would Erase Bat­tle­ground Lines

Gor­don and Hart­mann drew on TV adver­tis­ing data from the two pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. The dataset was vast, cov­er­ing 75 TV mar­kets, which reach 78 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. The researchers cal­cu­lat­ed the aver­age num­ber of times each per­son in an area saw a polit­i­cal ad. They also obtained adver­tis­ing prices across TV mar­kets, as well as coun­ty-lev­el vot­ing results.

The researchers then devel­oped a mod­el to sim­u­late how two com­pet­ing pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates and their out­side sup­port­ing groups could most effec­tive­ly allo­cate mon­ey for TV adver­tis­ing in a direct-vote sys­tem. Each team had to decide how much mon­ey to spend on ads in var­i­ous mar­kets (which cost dif­fer­ent amounts) from Sep­tem­ber to Novem­ber of an elec­tion year to max­i­mize their chance of winning.

If you change the Elec­toral Col­lege, you’re going to change how can­di­dates behave. And if you change how can­di­dates behave, you might change how vot­ers respond.”

The analy­sis of the 2000 elec­tion sug­gest­ed, unsur­pris­ing­ly, that under a direct-vote sys­tem, adver­tis­ing would have dropped in bat­tle­ground states and spread to for­mer non-bat­tle­ground states. Vot­ers in swing states would have seen an aver­age of 37 per­cent few­er Bush ads and 58 per­cent few­er ads for Al Gore. But that decrease would have been more than com­pen­sat­ed for else­where. Peo­ple in oth­er states would have seen rough­ly twice as many ads in the model’s sce­nario as they did under the Elec­toral Col­lege. Over­all, total adver­tis­ing spend­ing would have increased from $117 mil­lion to $132 million.

The results make sense because the can­di­dates would have had to fight for votes all across the coun­try in an extreme­ly close race, which had a pop­u­lar vote mar­gin of less than 1%, says Gor­don. 2000 was a nar­row elec­tion no mat­ter how you cut it,” he says. Any giv­en vote could be pivotal.”

For the 2004 elec­tion between Bush and John Ker­ry, the researchers saw a dif­fer­ent pat­tern. Bat­tle­ground adver­tis­ing still dropped dra­mat­i­cal­ly: Vot­ers saw an aver­age of 74 per­cent and 82 per­cent few­er Bush and Ker­ry ads, respec­tive­ly. But the can­di­dates did not make up that spend­ing in oth­er states. Vot­ers in for­mer non-bat­tle­ground areas saw about the same num­ber of Bush ads and even few­er Ker­ry ads than they did under the Elec­toral Col­lege system.

A Poor Invest­ment in Polit­i­cal Ads

Why the dif­fer­ence between the two elec­tions? In 2004, Bush was lead­ing by a fair­ly wide mar­gin over Ker­ry in many states, so invest­ing mon­ey in adver­tis­ing might have led to an unpro­duc­tive arms race. Ker­ry could have spent, say, $1 mil­lion in one mar­ket, but Bush could eas­i­ly have matched that amount. If Kerry’s ads did not lure sub­stan­tial­ly more vot­ers than Bush’s, the mon­ey would essen­tial­ly have been wasted.

And TV ads are only mod­er­ate­ly effec­tive. In a tight Elec­toral Col­lege sce­nario, they might gar­ner the few hun­dred or thou­sand votes need­ed to tip the bal­ance in a swing state. How­ev­er, they might not sway the mil­lions of vot­ers need­ed in a direct vote, Gor­don says.

So in a sit­u­a­tion where one can­di­date is lag­ging sig­nif­i­cant­ly, that per­son may decide it is not worth it to sink mon­ey into ads.

If I have a direct vote and I’m down by 5 points nation­al­ly, I may not be able to spend any amount of mon­ey on adver­tis­ing that’s going to sway that 5 per­cent of vot­ers,” Gor­don says. It’s just too many vot­ers.” Instead, the can­di­date may try to pull ahead by vis­it­ing states in per­son more fre­quent­ly or chang­ing pol­i­cy posi­tions to appeal to more people.

Rip­ple Effects

Gor­don and Hart­mann also explored how can­di­dates’ adver­tis­ing strate­gies under a direct-vote sys­tem would influ­ence elec­tion out­comes, like vot­er turnout and choice — and even the win­ner of an election.

Peo­ple assume that Gore would have won the 2000 elec­tion under a direct-vote sys­tem — after all, he received more votes than Bush. But Gor­don points out that the can­di­dates would have cam­paigned dif­fer­ent­ly in such an elec­tion, and those changes can have rip­ple effects.

If you change that sys­tem, you’re going to change how can­di­dates behave,” he says. And if you change how can­di­dates behave, you might change how vot­ers respond.”

The team mod­elled how altered adver­tis­ing strate­gies would affect vot­er behav­ior. For the 2000 elec­tion, the researchers found that Bush would have won the pop­u­lar vote in four more states: Iowa, New Mex­i­co, Ore­gon, and Wis­con­sin. How­ev­er, Gore still would have retained the over­all lead by about 390,000 votes. Sim­i­lar­ly, for the 2004 elec­tion, Bush still would have pre­vailed over Kerry.

Free Pub­lic­i­ty

The results do not have impli­ca­tions for TV adver­tis­ing in the cur­rent pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, since the Elec­toral Col­lege sys­tem stands. But Gor­don notes that Don­ald Trump has grabbed vot­ers’ atten­tion in oth­er ways.

Trump has been a great exam­ple of some­one who has clear­ly mas­tered free pub­lic­i­ty,” he says. Why pay for ads on TV when you can guar­an­tee that you’re going to have the media cov­er him any­way?” In a direct-vote sce­nario, he says, per­haps more can­di­dates would adopt this more organ­ic” form of advertising.

As for whether a direct vote would ulti­mate­ly ben­e­fit the coun­try, Gor­don does not have a clear answer. A reduc­tion in TV adver­tis­ing could be seen as pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive, depend­ing on whether you think ads help peo­ple make more informed choic­es, pro­vide lit­tle use­ful con­tent, or actu­al­ly deceive vot­ers. What he can say is that, giv­en the nature of a direct vote, can­di­dates would have to appeal to a broad­er vot­er base.

Whether that in the end makes the coun­try bet­ter off, whether or not that solves all of pol­i­tics’ prob­lems — there does not exist a mod­el that can tell you the answer to that question.”

Featured Faculty

Brett Gordon

Associate Professor of Marketing

About the Writer

Roberta Kwok is a freelance science writer based near Seattle.

About the Research

Gordon, Brett R., and Wesley R. Hartmann. In press. “Advertising Competition in Presidential Elections.” Quantitative Marketing and Economics.

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