Mellman: The trout in the milk

Mellman: The trout in the milk

Political practitioners find it amusing, and mildly threatening, that political scientists are still debating whether campaigns matter. 

Every consultant has tales to tell prospective clients about how their stratagem, or tactic, or ad saved the day and won the victory everyone else thought impossible.

In truth though, much of what passes for knowledge among political campaigners is nothing more than dimly remembered anecdote, thinly disguised salesmanship or simple barroom boasting.

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That’s changed in recent years as academics and practitioners have brought scientific methods to the study of political campaigns.

One stubborn finding of these investigations is the relatively minimal impact of campaign activity. 

A leading academic study analyzed 49 field experiments, concluding, “The best estimate for the persuasive effects of campaign contact and advertising — such as mail, phone calls, and canvassing — on Americans’ candidate choices in general elections is zero.”

I’ve critiqued their approach on several grounds in these pages, including noting that, in an otherwise close race, a 1-point effect can make all the difference in the outcome. But it feels tiny. 

I’d prefer contrary evidence from randomized experiments or other rigorous methods, but, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”

OK, what does that mean?

When mid-19th century customers found a fish in their milk can, it was pretty clear the farmer had dipped the container in the river to water down the milk. 

A recent independent expenditure (IE) campaign I directed found the trout in the milk.

Former Cleveland City Councilwoman and state Sen. Nina Turner faced our favored candidate, Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Shontel Brown. 

Turner outspent Brown by $3.4 million. Our IE narrowed that gap by $2.1 million and others joined in on both sides, but when all was said and done, the pro-Turner forces outspent the pro-Brown team by over $1.25 million.

Initially, Turner was far better known, holding a 30-point advantage in hard name identification. 

Turner boasted the endorsement of the district’s major newspaper and the mayor of its largest city (Cleveland), while Brown was endorsed by key local and national figures. 

Turner also began with a substantial 23-point lead in the race.   

Pressing her financial advantage, Turner went on TV early, expanding her lead to 35 points in her campaign’s poll. Our slightly later survey put the margin at 24 points, but both polls showed Turner increasing her vote to 50 percent in a race featuring 13 candidates.

Not a randomized controlled trial, but pretty strong circumstantial evidence her media worked, at least temporarily.

Our IE then did positive digital, mail and TV ads, while the Brown campaign also aired positive TV ads. 

Within about two weeks, Turner’s lead shrunk to just 7 points in a Brown campaign poll, and days after that, to a similar 5 points in ours.

We then began making the case against Turner on TV, in the mail and on digital.

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Less than two weeks later, Turner’s margin narrowed again, to just 1 point. On Election Day, Brown prevailed by 5. 

Within just over two short months, Brown transformed a deficit of 23-35 points into a 5-point victory.

Turner enjoyed the clear financial advantage. So that doesn’t explain the dramatic turnaround. 

Was our candidate superior? Yes.

Was our TV and digital better, was our strategy smarter, was the fact that we had mail and they didn’t decisive? Was it the basic fact that Turner had opposed Joe BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublican Ohio Senate candidate slams JD Vance over previous Trump comments Budowsky: Why GOP donors flock to Manchin and Sinema Countering the ongoing Republican delusion MORE and the Democratic platform? Was it easier in a primary, absent the anchor of partisanship?

Perhaps all of the above!

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Without the tools of rigorous scientific inquiry, we can’t be sure which was most important.

We can be certain, though, that the trout was in the milk; the circumstantial evidence that communications from the campaign and the IEs made a large and decisive difference in this race is overwhelming. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.