As voters, we don’t like changing our minds.
It takes only a fraction of a second for us to make a first impression. As much as we might like to believe that our votes are not influenced by something as irrational as a biased first impression, research has indicated quite the opposite: our first impression of how a candidate looks goes a long way toward determining whether or not we will vote for him/her.
Of course, first impressions aren’t everything. Over time, that first impression takes on weight; we add to it a variety of other perceptions and biases based on what we think a candidate is doing or saying, and based on the impressions of the people around us.
Eventually, we tend to create these narratives about political candidates, which may or may not have any connection to reality. George W. Bush, despite his Ivy League education and tremendous political acumen, became a down-to-earth (although perhaps not the brightest bulb) man of the people. Bill Clinton was a charismatic philanderer and an incredibly astute political operative, despite the fact that he never won more than 50 percent of the vote in a presidential election.
In the case of the current presidential election, the big narrative is Mitt Romney: the pro-business, favorite of the GOP insiders, moderate who has trouble relating to blue collar Americans. That narrative, based on a combination of first impressions, media coverage, and our mass perception of Romney as a man and a candidate, has become deeply ingrained.
And as voters, we don’t like changing our minds.
In particular, Romney spent tens of millions of dollars and gave dozens of stump speeches in Ohio trying to change voters’ opinions about three things in particular:
1) He was more of a fiscal conservative than Rick Santorum.
2) He was just as conservative as Santorum on the basic issues important to evangelicals, particularly opposition to abortion and support for Israel.
3) He was capable of understanding and relating to the concerns of average, blue-collar Ohioans.
So how well did that work? Did the massive ad campaign change how Ohioans perceived him? Well, let’s look at the exit polls from the Ohio primary.
Who won poor and middle class voters? Santorum.
Who won self-identified “conservative” voters? Santorum.
Who won evangelicals? Santorum.
Who won voters who care most about abortion? Santorum.
All of Romney’s money and all of his time and energy campaigning was not enough to change the underlying perception of Romney as the pro-business, moderate option who’s a bit out of touch with evangelicals and working class Americans.
Of course, advertising is useful. It can do a lot to help a candidate: by creating a first impression among people who aren’t very familiar with the candidate, by improving name recognition, by reinforcing negative impressions about a candidate’s opponent, or, alternatively, by reinforcing positive impressions about a candidate’s own image. But fundamentally changing voters’ minds is almost impossible, no matter how much time or money you throw at the problem.