Every election cycle, candidates spend millions in the hopes of making a lasting impression on voters. The extent to which campaigns are able to capture the public’s attention long enough to matter has been an age old debate. Recent research suggests that voters may have even shorter political attention spans than previously believed. In her AJPS article entitled “It’s about Time: The Lifespan of Information Effects in a Multiweek Campaign,” University of Nebraska professor Dona-Gene Mitchell shows that, particularly in the case of policy information, voters adopt an in with the new and out with the old approach.
Her study uses a twelve week “panel experiment” designed to capture the weeks-long, low information context surrounding the vast majority of congressional races in the United States. Toward this end, every week individuals received a single piece of information about either the candidate’s character or policy stances. Mitchell found that policy information had a lifespan of no longer than one week. Information about the candidate’s policy stances mattered in the given week but failed to continue to exert an effect on candidate evaluations beyond the week the information was encountered. Mitchell describes this as “rapid displacement” such that old information is quickly displaced in voter’s minds by new campaign details. Information was more likely to stick in memory if it pertained to the candidate’s character but again the most powerful effects were observed during the week when the character information was first encountered.
Campaign spending may be more effective at helping emerging politicians gain name recognition among the American public. Such investments, however, may have little value if the goal is to educate the American public on policy issues. As this study clearly shows fortunes spent on the campaign trail are unlikely to increase the capacity of the average voter to retain policy information for any enduring period of time. If we care about the quality of the democratic input that the American citizenry provide at the time they cast their ballots on Election Day and we genuinely want them to be better informed when it comes to policy information, spending more money is unlikely to yield the desired results given how voters process policy information.
About the Author: Dona-Gene Mitchell is an associate professor in the political science department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her expertise includes the temporal dynamics of opinion formation specifically as they relate to the interrelationships among information, political campaigns and time. Her work has also been published in Political Psychology, Electoral Studies, and American Politics Research. For inquiries regarding this study, you can contact her at email@example.com.