If politics were like high school, Republicans would be the football stars and Democrats would be chess club captains. Those stereotypes are the easiest way to summarize part of the conclusions from a study by Michael Lewis, Ph.D., assistant professor of marketing in the Olin Business School.
By approaching political campaigns from a marketing perspective, Lewis was able to determine the effectiveness of branding and advertising. The goal of the research was to understand the relative effects of candidates’ appearance and advertising spending strategies on election outcomes.
“The reality is that these campaigns are run like marketing campaigns,” Lewis said. “They’re driven by focus groups, there’s a lot of advertising, and people use marketing language, such as ‘positioning.’
“There is a lot going on in a political campaign that mirrors marketing,” he said. “You’ve got an incumbent versus a challenger. In marketing language, that’s an established product versus a new entrant. Typically, challengers don’t have as much awareness in the minds of consumers as incumbents do. We’ve got a brand structure, which is the brand of Republicans and the brand of Democrats.”
When it comes to how a candidate looks, the research found that Republicans generally did better when they appeared more competent and trustworthy, while Democrats experienced success when they appeared more intelligent and likable.
“This is where we get into something that might be a little tough to talk about because it’s easiest to think of this in terms of stereotypes,” Lewis said. “Republicans tend to do better when they look like a high-school quarterback or a CEO — square jaw, cropped hair. Democrats did better when they had the look of a college professor.”
Lewis and his co-author, JoAndrea Hoegg, Ph.D., a professor at the University of British Columbia, based their research on 112 congressional elections in 2000 and 2002.
In order to determine the impact of looks, subjects in a lab were shown pictures of pairs of opposing candidates and asked which appeared more competent, more intelligent, more likeable or more trustworthy. Lewis said that those quick judgments helped determine which political party tended to be associated with which characteristics.
“We also asked subjects to guess which candidate was Republican and which was Democrat. We looked at those responses in terms of the different personality measures we collected,” Lewis said. “We found that people who appeared more competent and more trustworthy were identified as Republican.”
In addition to considerations of the candidates’ appearance, advertising spending and the use of negative ads impacted outcomes.
For incumbents, the relationship between spending great quantities on advertising and winning the campaign had very little effect.
But for the challengers, there was a strong positive relationship between spending levels and vote shares. However, for incumbents, the relationship between spending and votes was more complex.
While low and moderate levels of incumbent spending bode well for vote shares, very high levels of incumbent spending have negligible effects on results. This indicates that incumbents frequently overspend, Lewis said.
When it comes to negative advertising, the results were fairly surprising. While negative advertising had an adverse effect on incumbents, challengers tended to benefit a great deal from engaging in mudslinging.
The research has implications for how political campaigns are managed, Lewis said. For example, the respective parties might want to take appearance into consideration when determining who should run for office.
Additionally, once the campaign is up and running, political strategists should consider the impact that spending and negative advertising may have on the election results.