If Democrats prevail during the midterms, TV advertising might have something to do with it

The neck-and-neck race for control of the U.S. Senate is particularly unwelcome news for Democrats. Not long ago, it looked as if they could maintain or even expand their slim Senate majority. Now, control of the chamber is essentially a toss-up.

But if Democratic candidates do emerge victorious in key swing states such as Pennsylvania, one plausible explanation is a simple one – they ran more television ads than their Republican opponents. It might seem odd to credit old-fashioned television advertising in this digital era. But television advertising does win votes – and it might make the difference in 2022.

In a comprehensive study of television advertising and election outcomes published in November 2021, political scientists Lynn Vavreck, Chris Warshaw and I combined broadcast television advertising data with county-level election returns for over 4,500 races between 2000 and 2018. These races included elections for president, U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governors and other statewide offices.

Our research also considered advertising run by political party organizations and independent groups that favored one candidate or another – not just ads run by candidates themselves.

This data enabled us to see whether the candidate who leads in television ads actually wins more votes. Moreover, we extended the analysis beyond presidential elections – the usual focus of political reporters and academic researchers – to examine the degree to which advertising matters further down the ballot in state and local elections.