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Disentangling the Effects of Ad Tone on Voter Turnout and Candidate Choice in Presidential Elections


We develop an approach to disentangle the effect of positive and negative advertising on primary and secondary demand. We study these ad tone effects in the context of political advertising using a model of voter turnout and candidate choice. Our central empirical challenge is disentangling ad tone effects when advertising is measured with error and candidates' advertising choices are influenced by factors observed by campaigns and voters but unobserved by the researcher. To address this challenge, we employ an instrumental variables strategy that combines a new, very large set of potential instruments with recent advances in machine learning for causal inference (Belloni et al. 2012). Applying this strategy to data on the 2000 and 2004 U.S. Presidential elections, we find that positive and negative ads play fundamentally different roles. Negative advertising is more effective at driving relative candidate share, but tends to decrease voter turnout. In contrast, positive advertising stimulates voter turnout, but does so for both the own and opposing candidates. These results indicate that a candidate deciding which tone to use has to weigh the trade-off between relative share and turnout. A series of partial-equilibrium counterfactual simulations demonstrates that ad tone alone can have small but meaningful effects on the outcomes of close elections.


Working Paper


Brett Gordon, Mitch Lovett, Bowen Luo, James C. Reeder

Date Published



Gordon, Brett, Mitch Lovett, Bowen Luo, and James C. Reeder. 2020. Disentangling the Effects of Ad Tone on Voter Turnout and Candidate Choice in Presidential Elections.


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