The Best Marketing Strategy for Winning an Election
What works for one party doesn't necessarily work for another. Professor Doug Chung discusses his research on presidential elections, and which marketing paths lead to victory.
18 Sep 2015   Christian Camerota

If candidates are searching for the right marketing mix in 2016, they need look no further than the last few election cycles.

Doug J. Chung, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, did just that in his recent working paper. Along with colleague Lingling Zhang, Chung built a data set analyzing voter preferences in the last three election cycles in so-called “battleground states.” The study looked at four different instruments (a candidate’s own advertising, outside advertising, retail campaigning, and field operations) and found some stark differences along party lines and between the tactics.

Among the most notable findings:

  • Voters were more heavily influenced by a candidate’s own advertising than outside advertising (such as those sponsored by Political Action Committees)
  • Mass media advertising and retail campaigning were more effective for Republican candidates
  • Field operations (like get-out-the-vote efforts) were more effective for Democrats candidates

    The latter played a large role in Barack Obama’s two campaigns, Chung said, particularly in 2012 where the polls showed the candidates neck-and-neck before Obama achieved a landslide victory in the Electoral College. The Obama and Romney campaigns spent $2.3 billion that year, making it the most expensive U.S. presidential election in history. But unlike in typical marketing scenarios, where all participants earn some market share for their efforts, elections are winner-take-all.


    “Both parties spent well over one billion dollars in the last election, and it’s going to be even more than that this time around,” Chung said. “Yet one party will go home with nothing at the end of the day, which makes it a pretty risky proposition. Still, it has all the hallmarks of a classic marketing problem, where competitors are trying to use various instruments to persuade customers to buy their product. In this case, the product is the candidate and currency comes in the form of votes.”

    Despite the enormous dollar figures and the all-or-nothing nature of campaign outcomes, Chung’s findings demonstrate that wise marketing investments can indeed influence voters at the polls. This was especially true for the Obama campaign, which used field operations to great effect, employing staffers and volunteers to get out and personally interact with constituents. Chung cautioned that the study’s data was aggregated and therefore had limitations about what inferences could be drawn from it. But he did say that his intuition told him the results were at least partially a matter of geography.

    “Typically, people that vote Democrat reside in more condensed urban areas,” Chung said. “So field operations will naturally be more effective because you can reach more potential voters in a single location. Conservatives, on the other hand, had more success with mass media advertising, which I suspect is because their voter bases are more spread out.”

    In the upcoming 2016 elections, Chung said it would be crucial for campaign strategists to analyze what worked for their parties previously to see where to focus, and to tailor their strategies to rapidly changing demographics. Chung mentioned Texas as an example of how quickly demographics can shift; it used to be a state so staunchly conservative that Republicans would rarely devote any marketing dollars to it. That may very well be changing.


    “The standard advice is to play to your strengths and minimize your weaknesses,” Chung said. “For Democrats, they have to emphasize the ground game and do at least as good a job as Obama’s campaign did in the last two elections. Unless something drastic happens, then I think they may have the edge in terms of turnout. For Republicans, it will be important for them to dig into why they were so effective using mass media and further that. But if they’re intent on winning, they may have to step up their field operations to do so.”

    One type of advertising in Chung’s study fell far below the others in its efficacy: Political Action Committee (PAC) ads. PAC ads are a relative newcomer to campaign marketing, bolstered by the introduction of Super PACs thanks to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, and by law are not allowed to be coordinated with a candidate’s own advertising. As such, their content is often negatively directed at a candidate’s opposition.

    “PACs are relatively new and we’re going to see a lot more of them leading up to the 2016 elections,” Chung said. “So I found it especially interesting that they were less effective. My intuition is that happened because they are, by their nature, not well-coordinated with each other and often quite negative. A good marketing campaign always needs to have a consistent message.”

    Related Reading

    Ground Game, Air Wars, and Other Marketing Lessons From Presidential Elections

    This is a derivative of an image by Allen Brewer, used with a Creative Commons 2.0 License.

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