TV Advertising in Presidential Campaigns

At a glance:

In recent years, presidential candidates have advertised on television with increasing frequency. Campaign advertisements generally fall under one of two categories: positive or negative. A positive campaign ad encourages the electorate to vote for that candidate, while a negative ad focuses on discouraging the electorate from voting for that candidate’s opponents. Over the last few months, our research has been on the effect of campaign television advertising generally on presidential elections.  Specifically, we examined the rates of spending by each major party’s presidential nominees on television advertisements, the prevalence of negative campaign ads over the past several election cycles and within each major party, and sought to determine whether correlations could be found between these factors and presidential election outcomes.

It is no secret that voter turnout in the United States is abysmal. Many have speculated that the low rates at which Americans show up to the polls could be attributed, at least in part, to a widespread disillusionment with the political process. We found that as our politics have become more partisan in the last 10-15 years, negative advertising has become more prevalent as well. As candidates up and down the ballot have used negative advertising to tie their opponents to the extreme fringes of their respective parties, those in the center often feel alienated, and as such, feel less compelled to vote for either candidate. The significance of negative advertising is germane not only because of the way in which it contributes to the polarization of our politics, but also because it has led to large-scale distrust of those running our government. Moreover, when several candidates utilize negative advertising to effectively coalesce against one of their opponents, it often results in the antagonized candidate gaining momentum.

In their piece, published in Journalists’ Resource in 2016, Denise-Marie Ordway and John Wihbey provide empirical evidence of the increase in negative advertising put out by Presidential candidates. While their research demonstrated that negative advertisements seldom persuaded voters to support the candidate who put out the advertisement, a commercial’s success could be attributed to its ability to dissuade voters from supporting the opponent. The authors also observe that the Citizens United Case dramatically altered the political landscape, as outside groups can now spend draconian sums on their preferred candidates, and the candidates themselves do not have to bear the burden of being responsible for the advertisements. 

In his article written on Monkey Cage, John Sides observes the importance of advertisements’ timing. He discusses Obama adviser David Axelrod’s assertion that the way to advertise most efficiently is to saturate the airwaves as early as possible. Axelrod argues a crucial factor in the President’s successful re-election bid in 2012 was that they put out the lion’s share of their advertisements during the beginning of the general election campaign on the theory that Americans were accustomed to tuning out the seemingly incessant commercials during the closing weeks of any Presidential race. Like the authors of the Journalists’ Resource piece, Sides insinuates that negative advertisements are most effective if a candidate is perceived to be unlikable, and believes he or she can win by framing their opponent in a similarly unfavorable light in the hopes that they may garner votes on the basis that they are the lesser of two evils.

Erika Franklin Fowler’s piece in De Gruyter outlines the prevalence of campaign advertisements in the 2016 campaign cycle. Fowler observes that many of the advertisements were put out by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and their allies and were aired in pivotal swing states. Sides points out in his piece that regardless of the prevalence and tone of a candidate’s advertisements, there is no true substitute for electioneering. Of course, Clinton ultimately came up short in places like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and it cost her the presidency. In the aftermath of her shocking defeat, many argued that Clinton did not spend enough time courting voters in those states herself, opting instead to rely on advertising and dispatching surrogates to speak at rallies in her stead. Many also attributed the lower-than-expected turnout rate to the negative and divisive tone that came to define the race. 

Data not available for 1992, 1996, and 2004 elections.

Hey, Big Spender!

Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton lead for highest total tv advertisement expenditures. Two of the three candidates emerged victorious.

Image source: Getty photos

Image source: Getty photos

Source: Getty images

Can Money Buy the White House?

This table aims to depict any correlation between the amount spent on TV advertising and a candidate’s success in the general election.

TV advertising is only a small part of the campaign process, and it is difficult to say with certainty whether it makes a difference in the outcome of presidential elections. Still, interesting trends can be observed over the course of election history. We can accurately say that most of the time, the candidate who spends the most on tv advertising is victorious, but 2016 shows us that there are outliers to this correlation. Negative advertising have become more prevalent as the United States becomes more polarized, both within the electorate and within the government. While negative ads seem like they could benefit a candidate, they are not without their foibles, even if recent legal action has effectively absolved the candidates of any responsibility in many instances. In fact, negative ads arguably contribute to hyper-polarization, especially in the weeks prior to the election. Another variable is that a high proportion of Americans tend to cast their ballots as a referendum on a the candidate they are voting against rather than in support of the candidate they are voting for. It seems that as long as the political environment in the United States remains as tense as it currently is, candidates might be inclined to spend against their opponents rather than on themselves, but by doing so, they are only contributing to the problem.


Griffin, Hannah (2012) “Keep it Clean? How Negative Campaigns Affect Voter Turnout,” Res Publica – Journal of Undergraduate Research: Vol. 17

Goldstein, Ken. “Candidates Make Last Ditch Ad Spending Push Across 14-State Electoral Map.” Bloomberg. November 2, 2016. 

Baum, Laura. “Presidential General Election Ad Spending Tops $1.5 Billion.” Wesleyan Media Project, October 29, 2020.

“Column: This Year’s Political Ads: The Good, the Bad and the Deceptive.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2020.

Denise-Marie Ordway, Journalist’s Resource September 25. “Negative Political Ads and Their Effect on Voters: Updated Collection of Research,” December 20, 2016.

Fowler, Erika Franklin, Travis N. Ridout, and Michael M. Franz. “Political Advertising in 2016: The Presidential Election as Outlier?” De Gruyter. De Gruyter, December 1, 2016.

Guttmann, A. “U.S. Presidential Election Ad Spend 2016.” Statista, April 6, 2016.

John Sides, Lynn Vavreck. “Perspective | TV Ads Still Win Elections. And Democrats Are Buying a Lot More of Them.” The Washington Post. WP Company, October 28, 2020.

Silver, Nate. “Democrats And Republicans Are Spending Millions On TV Advertising. Will It Even Make A Difference?” FiveThirtyEight. FiveThirtyEight, October 29, 2020.

“Spending on Television Advertising by the 2008 Presidential Campaigns.” Political Maps, October 16, 2008.