Friday, February 7, 2014

A Memo to Senator Walsh

Today, to no one's surprise, Governor Steve Bullock appointed John Walsh to the open Senate seat. Ink has been spilled by me and others concerning whether this appointment helps or hurts him politically. I have said it doesn't particularly help him, others disagree (most notably erstwhile Don Pogreba over at Intelligent Discontent). It is clear there are pros and cons to the move.

But let's say it helps.

If Senator Walsh wanted to maximize the benefit of his appointment, I'd pull much of his Washington staff and send them home to Montana to work in the eight offices he'll inherit from Max Baucus. In an article I published with Craig Goodman in 2013 in Political Research Quarterly, we examine the effect of the office expenditures by senators on the impressions of their constituents. We wrote the following to summarize our statistical analysis:

"Put differently, senators from more rural and less populated states can more easily act like their House colleagues and develop reputations for constituent service, while senators representing more densely populated states have more barriers to overcome for that reputation to receive positive notice."

You can read the entire piece here (behind a paid firewall FYI).

In a state like Montana, constituents notice constituent service work done at home for them. If Walsh wants to maximize the power of incumbency in his upcoming race against Congressman Steve Daines, using those official resources to do casework and help constituents deal with federal red tape would yield far more benefit than concentrating on policy and passing legislation (which is really had to pass in this polarized period of divided government anyway). And, since a senator can draw upon more official resources than a member of the House, he can make a bigger splash and get more notice than Daines. Such is the problem of running for the Senate as a sitting House member especially in a state like Montana where the constituencies are one and the same....

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Of Campaign Ads and Campaign Arcs

Today, Congressman Steve Daines announced that the first TV ad of his Senate campaign will drop on Montana's stations tomorrow. Watch "Interview" below:

Let's compare it to Jon Tester's first ad from 2012, "Combine":

And Denny Rehberg's first ad, "Honest":

Note how Tester and Daines start with positive biographical narratives. This is the traditional campaign arc followed by most campaigns. Rehberg's Senate race, alternatively, chose to use a contrast ad instead of starting with the positive, biographical narrative.

Also note that in 2012, Tester aired his first spot in March of 2012 after organizations had been airing ads for over a year. Rehberg dropped his first spot in May. Daines is launching his ad in February. Why? First, Daines has less name recognition than either Tester or Rehberg. He needs to build that up--the earlier, the better. Second, I suspect Daines wants to build up his favorability ratings as well before the hits start coming from outside groups (that could happen at any time). Third, Daines has raised more money than the Democratic candidates in the race and has more on hand. He might hope that this early expenditure puts pressure on the Democrats to start their own ads, too--which would put some pressure on their financial resources earlier than they would like.

Political science scholarship is mixed on the effectiveness of early ads. Most recent work suggests that ad effects decay quickly (see for example the discussion in Sides and Vavreck's book The Gamble), thereby suggesting that early advertising is not terribly useful or beneficial. I think, however, that the story is not so clear, especially when an early advertising buy occurs when the airwaves are essentially free of other messages (at the very least, Ridout and Franz find some positive effects of early advertising in their 2008 book). At the very least, I conclude that Tester's March-April buy in 2012, which represented the single largest advertising advantage in terms of spots aired during the campaign (when you include the outside group CSS that had an ad up attacking Rehberg on congressional pay raises in March), helped the Tester campaign over the long haul because it helped remind some Montanans that they genuinely liked the guy even if they disagreed with him politically. Political scientists generally under-appreciate the power of positive advertising and the likeability of a candidate as a factor in voting decisions.

Will the Daines ad buy yield a similar result? Time will tell. If anyone has information on the size of the buy and on what stations, I'd love to know.