Scholars have disagreed about televised political ads’ impact on voter turnout for decades, given that these ads usually are accompanied by on-the-ground campaign activities that might also have an effect. This juxtaposition made it difficult to measure the effect of the ads in isolation—until Suffolk University Government Professor Elena Llaudet found a way.
“Billions of dollars are spent on political advertising in every election year and it’s important to know how this impacts our democracy,” said Llaudet, who was able to cleanly isolate the effect of political TV ads on voter turnout by using a more precise measure of TV ad exposure.
Llaudet’s published her research in the paper “The mobilizing and demobilizing effects of political TV ads: A midterm election study,” which won the New England Political Science Association’s 2018 John C. Donovan Prize for Best Paper Written by a Faculty Member.
Impact of attack ads
Llaudet’s study revealed that exposure to political TV ads can produce contrary results depending on the tone of the campaign.
“While all ads, regardless of tone, might mobilize the electorate by reminding people of the upcoming election and the issues at stake, attack ads have the potential to demobilize the electorate by reminding them of the nasty demeanor of politics,” she said.
In her study, Llaudet exploited a natural experiment by comparing “areas that in 2014 were accidentally exposed to intense political advertising to areas that were not.“
Her research showed that exposure to political TV ads increased precinct-level turnout by an average of 2 to 3 percentage points whenever the volume of negative ads was equivalent to the volume of positive ads. However, as the volume of negative TV ads increased, the estimated effect of exposure on turnout significantly decreased.
“As a campaign becomes overwhelmingly negative in tone, it makes you not want to participate in the elections,” she said.
Llaudet is a numbers person, and she teaches students in a Data Analysis and Politics class how to distinguish a good quantitative study from a bad one.
“Data analysis is a very good and practical skill to have,” she said. “It could be used to inform many of our everyday decisions. In my class, part of what I teach my students is to become more savvy consumers of research.”
Llaudet’s award-winning paper was published over the summer in Electoral Studies, an international journal on voting and electoral systems and strategy. She will be honored for her work at the New England Political Science Association’s annual meeting in April 2019.
Llaudet will take a leave of absence next semester to co-author a college textbook on data analysis, working with Harvard University Professor Kosuke Imai.
“The point of the book is to make data analysis more accessible, less intimidating, and basically something anyone can learn,” said Llaudet.