With the conclusion of the presidential campaign’s convention phase, it seems apparent that television is becoming increasingly irrelevant to this year’s election. Oh sure, the campaigns will try to battle it out over the airwaves, and television will continue to provide the loudest microphone, but the real decisions will probably be made by voters who aren’t even following the campaign on TV.
This is in contrast to the GOP primary, which, through seemingly endless debates and paid media, was fought out almost exclusively on television. Virtually every important event of the primary season either concerned the debates (“Oops”) or attack ads.
But while the primaries are for the party faithful, the general election is for the can’t-make-up-their-mind voters, and the conventions show that television doesn’t seem to be moving the needle. The Romney campaign received no “bounce” from the Tampa festivities, and while the Obama campaign did a little better, it wasn’t by much.
As has been well-reported, convention viewing weakened compared to 2008. On the closing nights, the GOP and Democrats were eight million and three million viewers lower respectively. But the demographic make-up of the audience is even more important. On those final nights, 58% of all GOP viewers had passed their 55th birthday and over half the Democratic viewers were that old. Only 11% of the GOP viewers and 15% of the Democrats were aged 18-34
(This is usually the part of the column where someone will dash off an objection that younger viewers are watching on the Internet. Can we use some common sense? There may have been a handful of political science nerds watching the conventions online in their dorms, but in general, people use the Internet to time-shift or to watch programming not available on TV, not because they like the experience of watching computer screens. You can tell there was minimal viewing of Internet streaming by the dearth of press releases bragging about streamers.)
We saw the same phenomenon during the GOP debates: tiny audiences of younger viewers, with many more viewers as the demographics aged. And the news channels, which are mostly watched by partisans anyway, also skew much older than average.
This pattern will almost certainly hold up for the upcoming debates. The audience is bound to skew to older, already committed voters. Rather than a disinterested examination of the issues, the debates will take on the feel of a prize fight, with fans cheering on their man, while those who are uninterested in blood sports stay away. Consequently, unless one of the candidates makes a grievous error, the debates are unlikely to change many minds.
It‘s also unclear whether paid advertising will have the decisive impact that SuperPacs and their critics think it will. The New Republic’s Noah Cohn argues that the oversaturation of commercials has reached a point of diminishing returns, where even a thousand GRPs of ads will only raise a candidate’s performance by 0.5%. Nevertheless, since the political operatives raised all that money, they’ve got to spend it somehow, so we can expect them to continue enriching the coffers of TV stations in those all-important swing states.
If TV isn’t as important this year, who will pick up the slack? There’s social media, which favors the younger-trending and more technologically adept Democrats. According to Twitter, Obama’s acceptance speech drew almost 53,000 tweets per minutes compared to Romney’s 14,000 tweets per minute. Twitter also reported that on the night of Obama’s speech users wrote more than 4 million tweets about the convention. That’s a lot of tweets, but still only one-eighth the number of actual television viewers.
The election will turn on two things: picking off undecided voters and turnout of committed voters. The GOP will use its usual tools to energize its base: Fox News, the Drudge Report, talk radio and the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, the Democrats will leverage MSNBC, Comedy Central, The New York Times, YouTube and Twitter.
But in the end, the winning team may be the one that succeeds at an election tool that is older even than television itself: getting out the vote. If voters have started to tune out television and other media, it might be old-fashioned knocking on doors and neighbors driving neighbors to the polls that settles the election. It’s not as glamorous or satisfying as a 30-second attack ad, but it might swing the election.