The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Oct 31, 2012

SuperPAC App mines data for election insight

Posted by Daniel Siegel

As part of its efforts to engage more Americans in the democratic process, Knight helped support the launch of a SuperPAC App, which lets people use their phone to identify political advertisements and receive objective, third-party information. It also allows the user to rate the ad, while understanding who and how much money is behind it, what claims it makes, and whether they’re based on facts. Below, its co-creator Dan Siegel writes about what they’re learning from the data collected.

Boom, Kapow, Wow!

Do Super PACs matter?

That has been the question heading into campaign season, the first in history in which anyone can contribute any amount to run any ad to influence the presidential election.

Before a single ad was aired, Mitt Romney called Super Pacs a "disaster" and President Obama singled them out as a "threat to our democracy." Yikes.

We at Super PAC App recently dug into some of our data to see what we’ve got to offer to this conversation. We looked at how users are rating TV ads by geography, and force-ranked states as most pro-Obama (deepest blue) vs. most pro-Romney (deepest red), leaving a collection of states in the middle. It's worth noting that this is just one slice of our data, and TV ads are just one piece of the campaign pie. We plan to publish all Super PAC App data after the election and hope other interesting findings emerge. In the above infographic, we analyzed 3,492 user-provided ratings collected from Sept. 24 through Oct. 23. 

Boom: swings are swings

Of the moving target of states whose outcomes are considered unknown today—let’s call them Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin—four of them (Colorado, Florida, Ohio, and Virginia) were indeed among our most divided states. This means that users in these states felt equally positively (or negatively, for you glass-half-empties) about Romney and Obama ads; Florida and Virginia in particular had nearly dead-even rankings on how they viewed Romney and Obama ads.

Why are Super PAC App users in these states playing their typecast role as swing voters?  Are they inherently fickle, or are these states true petri dishes of equal parts liberal and conservative?

Whatever the reason, swings are swings.

Kapow: states pull the switcheroo

We also looked at whether users reacted differently to official campaign ads vs. outside group ads.

Overall, we had sixteen states switch between red and blue when rating campaign vs. outside group ads. Of these sixteen, it’s interesting to examine Nevada, New Jersey, and Virginia. Each state jumped allegiances relatively drastically, and in the same direction: pro-Romney for official campaign ads, and pro-Obama for outside group ads. 

Nevada and New Jersey are both expected to vote for Obama, while Virginia is a toss-up. Perhaps a lesson for the campaigns here is that outside groups are unpredictable messengers. When left to control the narrative, Super PACs may hurt more than they help.

Wow: Seeing red in California and New York!

Two states on our map stick out like sore thumbs: California and New York. These states will certainly be in Obama’s camp on Nov. 6th (California is +13.8% and New York is +26.4%  Obama). Yet these states are deep red on our map. What’s more, they are consistently red—both for official campaign ads and outside ads. What gives?

Many of the possible explanations can’t be examined in deep detail due to the limitations of our data (i.e., to maintain privacy, we collect data per session, not per user; while the location data suggests this is not the case, it is possible that a few vociferous users could have had vote-for-Romney power hours).

But here’s a theory worth considering: TV ads in 2012 aren’t all they are cracked up to be. Voters may say “I hate your ads, but I’m voting for you anyway.” TV ads are one piece of a kaleidoscope of media that voters consume, and so it follows that their reaction to the ads is one data point to indicate how they judge a candidate.

So, what do you see? This may be the most fun Rorschach test you ever take.

Happy voting—

Dan Siegel

Co-Creator, Super PAC App

Thanks to George Primentas for teaming up with Super PAC App on this infographic.

Back to top