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Could Hillary Clinton Have Won By Spending More Ad Money In Wisconsin and Michigan?

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This seems to be the emerging narrative:

In the closing weeks of the presidential race, Hillary Clinton’s campaign — and the outside groups that supported it — aired more television advertisements in Omaha than in the states of Michigan and Wisconsin combined. The Omaha ads were in pursuit of a single electoral vote in a Nebraska congressional district, which Clinton did not ultimately win, and also bled into households in Iowa, which also she did not win. Michigan and Wisconsin add up to 26 electoral votes; she appears not to have won them, either.

Strategic decisions can make all the difference in a close race. Clinton lost the White House (despite winning the popular vote) to Republican Donald Trump on the strength of about 100,000 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. That is the definition of a close race.

I don’t think this is a very plausible explanation. Let’s leave aside the second-guessing aspect, the fact that it’s easy to take the test once you know the answer. (Resources are finite, and I didn’t see a lot of people urging Clinton to pour money into Wisconsin — a state in which she trailed in literally zero polls the entire campaign — before the fact.) There are still some pretty obvious problems here:

  • The most glaringly obvious problem with the counterfactual is that if she wins Wisconsin and Michigan, she…still loses. This seems like a major issue with the counterfactual! Note how Tankersley quietly slides from from “Wisconsin and Michigan” in the first graf to “Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania” in the second with addressing the obvious problem. If she had not put resources into any of the three states, you’d have something. But she contested Pennsylvania hard and still lost.
  • On a related note, people who are now absolutely certain that focusing on Wisconsin would have put Clinton in the White House seem to ignore the fact that Trump wasn’t contesting the state either, but certainly would have if Clinton had made a play for it. The problem with “but-for” counterfactuals involving the allocation of campaign resources is that all things cannot be assumed to be equal. The fact that Clinton did no better in the marginal state where she spent a lot of money and time makes it silly to assume that transferring some ad buys from other states to Wisconsin would have even resulted in Clinton winning Wisconsin.
  • Tankserley saves me the trouble of another point, albeit buried in the last graf: “To be fair, massive ad spending still left Clinton short in Ohio, North Carolina, Florida and even [even! –ed] Pennsylvania.” Leaving aside the yadda-yadding the state that Clinton needs to win the presidency in the alternative scenario, another fundamental problem with resource allocation arguments like this is that if television advertising is such a powerful tool, why wasn’t did she win Florida and why wasn’t she closer in Ohio, both states Obama carried twice?

My own unprovable speculation is that if there was a problem with Clinton’s advertising, it was in the content. In retrospect, trying to appeal to suburban Republican women by attacking Trump’s character didn’t seem to work. Advertising should have been more positive, and since Trump’s negative character had been well-established what negative advertising their was should have focused on stuff like his massive upper-class tax cuts. Was this a material mistake, one that changed the election? I have no idea! But even for essentially unprovable counterfactuals, the “Clinton should have gone hard in Wisconsin and Michigan” is incoherent on its own terms. If she had but more money into the three states under discussion, there’s a roughly 0.01% chance that it would have changed the ultimate outcome and a 99.99% chance that Monday Morning QBs would be calling Clinton’s campaign hopeless incompetents for spending money trying to reach Trump’s core voters in Michigan and Wisconsin rather than trying to mobilize their own bases in Florida and North Carolina.

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