Study Disputes Clinton 1996 Campaign Strategy
By Thomas B. Edsall
Many of President Clinton's advisers, particularly Richard Morris, his key consultant at the time, maintain these ads gave Clinton the early boost he needed to win reelection. But the study by the Pew Research Center found that the ads did not make any difference. That conclusion raises questions for the current presidential campaigns, especially Vice President Gore's, which is considering early television expenditures.
Andrew Kohut, who conducted the study, said of the strategy, "The irony is that it created the tremendous change in the way we think about political spending, and there is very little evidence that it did much."
Kohut compared Clinton's monthly favorable-unfavorable poll ratings in states whose media markets were targeted by the campaign and those without those markets to see if any trend emerged. None did: Clinton's favorable ratings were 4 to 5 percentage points higher in the states with targeted markets before any advertising began, and for the next 12 months, the difference averaged 4 percentage points.
"The trend toward higher job approval in the targeted states," Kohut wrote, "was evident prior to the start of the advertising -- by 4 points in April 1995, and 5 points in June 1995. Moreover, in polls conducted during the ad campaign, the president's job approval rating increased by 10 percentage points in the targeted states and 11 points in the nontarget states."
The study revives, but is unlikely to resolve, an ongoing debate within Clinton-Gore circles and among political operatives in both parties.
Morris, pollster Mark Penn and media consultant Robert Squier contend that a key part of Clinton's 1996 victory was the early spending of millions of dollars on TV ads in swing vote areas starting at the end of June 1995, far before traditional start-up times.
Morris said that once the ads began, "we always broke out" comparisons of Clinton's political position, contrasting the views of polled voters in the targeted markets to those in markets that were not targeted. "We always found a 10- to 15-point difference," clearly suggesting that the ads were working to build support for Clinton, he said.
These findings were used to justify a large and unprecedented television drive early in the contest, financed largely by the Democratic National Committee, and a significant proportion of the money raised was paid in fees to Morris, Penn and Squier.
The fund-raising for the television ads became the focus of a series of investigations, and resulted in disclosures that continue to haunt Gore. These include his participation in a fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple, and Gore's awkward claim that there was "no controlling legal authority" applicable to his telephone calls to donors from government facilities.
The Morris strategy has already faced criticism. Columnist Mark Shields, with support provided by GOP pollster Robert Teeter, wrote in April 1997, that the "bitter truth" is that "all the millions of dubious dollars [Clinton] so feverishly raised in 1995 . . .were basically wasted."
Some of the strongest arguments disputing Kohut, and supporting the claims made by Morris, Penn and others come from an unusual source: Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted his own detailed analysis of the effectiveness of the early polling.
He compared Clinton's favorability ratings and the generic Democratic congressional vote among voters in the targeted media markets and those in non-targeted markets, and found that both the favorability ratings and the generic Democratic vote were positively influenced by the media buys, although not as much as Morris contended.
"I believed then, and do now, that the early ads created an additional marginal benefit that helped reshape the race and helped Clinton and the Democrats," McInturff said.
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