The Air War versus The Ground Game: An Analysis of Multi-Channel Marketing in US Presidential Elections

by Doug J. Chung & Lingling Zhang
 
 

Overview — For United States presidential elections, mass media advertising has been referred to as the "air war" while targeted personal selling is the "ground game." Firms, too, increasingly use both mass media advertising and targeted personal selling to successfully promote products and brands in the marketplace. In this study, the authors jointly examine the effect of mass media advertising and personal selling in the context of US presidential elections. By linking various campaign activities to county-level vote results, the authors are able to offer a more comprehensive identification of the causal effect for campaign activities compared to existing studies on this topic. The results generate insights into the effectiveness of each campaign activity for different voter segments. For example, field operations are more effective for voters with stronger baseline partisan preferences, while advertising from the presidential candidates is more effective among those who are more on the margin. Overall, findings show that political campaigns play an essential role in the outcome of elections. This is contrary to the "minimum effect of campaigning" view held by some pundits, who claim that most voters already have their minds made up and, hence, campaigns barely move the needle in terms of voting results. Such findings may help firms in allocating resources across and within channels. Key concepts include:

  • Advertising can play a critical role in a close election-but not when one party has a big advantage.
  • While candidates' own ads are found to be more effective for voters with weaker baseline partisan preferences, the opposite is true for PAC ads.
  • In the United States-and prompted by a tremendous increase in campaign spending-both political strategists and the general public have engaged in a heated discussion about the effect of campaign activities on actual election outcomes.

Author Abstract

Firms increasingly use both mass-media advertising and targeted personal selling to successfully promote products and brands in the marketplace. In this study, we jointly examine the effect of mass-media advertising and personal selling in the context of U.S. presidential elections, where the former is referred to as the "air war" and the latter the "ground game." Specifically, we look at how different types of advertising―candidates' own ads vs. outside ads―and personal selling―in the form of utilizing field offices―affect voter preferences. Further, we ask how these various campaign activities affect the outcome of elections through their diverse effects on various types of people. We find that personal selling has a stronger effect among partisan voters, while candidates' own advertising is better received by non-partisans. We also find that personal selling accounted for the Democratic victories in the 2008 and 2012 elections and that advertising was critical only in a close election, such as the one in 2004. Interestingly, had the Democrats received more outside advertising in 2004, the election would have ended up in a 269-269 tie. Our findings generate insights on how to allocate resources across and within channels.

Paper Information