October 6, 2008 — By the end of a general election campaign for the U.S. presidency, the average voter has watched hundreds, if not thousands, of political advertisements.
The candidates and their supporters view each of these 30-second spots as yet another opportunity to hammer home the candidates' positions on a handful of themes that they think will resonate with their constituency. Candidates claim they will end the war, offer tax breaks for the middle class, or improve health care. There is no attempt —and indeed there is no time — to move beyond generalities to specific policy initiatives.
Critics deride these ads as simplistic, uninformative and even misleading, but Michele Claibourn, assistant professor in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics, insists that they serve a critical purpose, both for the candidates and citizens.
Candidates use repetition to establish their priorities, hoping to put together a platform that will appeal to voters. In doing so, however, they set voter expectations of their performance in office if they are elected.
"These ads give citizens — the vast majority of whom are not going to read policy papers — a basis not only for supporting a specific candidate, but also for holding their elected leaders accountable," Claibourn said.
When elected officials disappoint, their political capital — measured in their approval ratings — drops.
"These ads — precisely because they are so repetitious — help establish accountability by creating a link between campaign promises and presidential performance," Claibourn said.
To arrive at her findings, Claibourn conducted a series of surveys and undertook an exhaustive analysis of political ads that were aired during the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign. She found, for instance, that George W. Bush mentioned education in his ads 51 percent of the time, much more often than any other theme. Knowing that he would be held accountable for following through, he immediately began working with Congress during his first year in office to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, even though there were economic issues that also required his attention.
Underlying Claibourn's analysis is her view of a busy citizenry with many claims on its attention and little time to devote to a thorough consideration of the issues.
"The notion that you have to know a lot to be a good citizen keeps people from participating in politics," Claibourn said.
By presenting policy in broad generalities, these ads play the vital role of keeping people engaged.
"The information available in these 30-second ads is the kind that people want and can easily remember," Claibourn said. "In effect, this practice encourages the ordinary citizen to play a role in the outcome of an election and to scrutinize the actions of candidates after they are elected."