Swiftboating: Misleading Advertising in Presidential Elections

Zhang, Zhou, Economics - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Anderson, Simon, Department of Economics, University of Virginia
Ciliberto, Federico, Department of Economics, University of Virginia
Engers, Maxim, Department of Economics, University of Virginia

The term "swiftboating" arose out of advertisements aired in the 2004 presidential campaign and has now come to refer to any untrue political advertising. I develop an equilibrium model of voting behavior and candidate advertising in a presidential election with misleading and non-misleading advertising. I estimate the model using a unique dataset I created by systematically quantifying misleading statements in political advertisement videos in the 2008 election using FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com. A candidate chooses misleading and non-misleading advertising in order to maximize his expected electoral votes in exogenously-determined battleground states.

I find that the two candidates spent over $38 million on misleading advertising. At the levels of advertising observed in 2008, I find that the gross effect of misleading advertising is, on average across television markets, more than twice as large as the gross effect of non-misleading advertising in terms of increasing vote share. I calculate that the shadow price of one electoral vote to be $9.7 million for McCain and $15.2 million for Obama. In a counterfactual analysis where candidates cannot air misleading advertising, three states (Missouri, Indiana, and North Carolina) have different electoral outcomes, and the equilibrium level of advertising falls by 21%, with the decrease in non-misleading advertising accounting for 26% of that change. In a second counterfactual, I repeal the laws against misleading advertising in the six battleground states that had them in place in 2008, and I find that misleading advertising in those states increases by 50%, and this change leads to a different electoral winner in the state of North Carolina.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
elections, political advertising, misleading advertising, campaigns
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
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