Money is clearly important in politics, but I haven’t seen a good theory for why it is important. One of the biggest campaign expenditures is political advertising, and that is what I want to discuss right now. It is important to realize why and how people vote. Economists have long noted that it is not materially rational to vote; therefore, people vote because there are psychological benefits to doing so; doing your ‘civic duty’ feels good. Additionally, as I have discussed here before, people vote mostly altruistically, again, because voting altruistically feels good. This feeling does not, however, depend on whether a vote really did (or would) improve the world, so voters have essentially no incentive to make good political decisions.

This logic clearly restricts theories of political advertising to those which do not require voters to expend significant time or mental resources. For example, advertising cannot be meant as an argumentative device because voters are rationally uninterested in using time and mental resources to evaluate complex arguments.

I briefly discussed this subject with John M, and his major theory was that political advertising is primarily done to increase candidate-name recognition. Candidate names that are heard by voters often enough stick in their minds and voters are more likely to vote for candidates whom they have heard of before. The problem I see with this explanation for major races is that people who are indifferent enough to the election to vote based on which name they have heard most often, would be unlikely to be voting in the first place.

I will suggest two other explanations. First, political advertising could simply serve to signal popularity. People know that advertising is costly, so advertising signals that other people donated money or other resources to a candidate that advertises. The major problem with this theory is voters are certainly aware that politicians can get money from non-benign sources.

Another theory is that politicians use advertising to create a product which is “sold” to voters for their vote. Politicians use advertising to create an appealing ‘vision’ for public policy. This ‘vision’ would include ideology, emotional appeals, and candidate character and history traits. Voters vote for the candidate with the most appealing ‘vision’ because it gives voters the satisfying sense of leading the country in the direction of the candidate’s ‘vision’ or at least not towards the less appealing ‘visions’ of other candidates.

I think the ‘vision’ theory probably explains the bulk of political advertising in major races where voters are well aware of candidates. I think name recognition theory and/or the popularity signaling theory probably explain a lot of minor race political advertising. Consider campaign yard signs; yard signs do not have any content besides a candidate or issue name and sometimes a party identification. Both the name recognition theory and the popularity signaling theory can explain political yard signs, but the ‘vision’ theory cannot. It is my impression that yard signs play a much larger role in minor race campaigns than in major race campaigns.

It may be that this issue has already been well explored, but I have had trouble finding literature on the issue. What’s your theory for political advertising?

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