Case Study

May 3rd, 2016

The Pennsylvania Democratic Senate Race: A Case Study in How Effective Advertising Can Lead to Wins

The results of the Pennsylvania Primary are in, and with ad spending on this state’s senatorial battle alone totaling $29 million, the contest ranks as one of the most expensive non-presidential races. What did the McGinty campaign do so right that took the candidate who placed last in the 2014 gubernatorial primary and was trailing in the polls as late as April, to winning the senatorial primary? This contest is a case study of advertising do’s and don’ts.


This was a heated race, with the Democratic powers in Washington getting heavily involved in their attempt to ensure that Sestak, whom they consider to be untrustworthy, would not be on the ticket vs. the GOP incumbent Pat Toomey come November. Party bigwigs view Pennsylvania as a key state in their bid to retake control of the Senate, and newcomer Katie McGinty drew over $4 million in outside funds, with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) alone funneling an overpowering $1.5 million into supporting her. Women Vote/Emily’s List PAC contributed another $1 million to both support McGinty and attack Sestak. What did that money buy? Was money the hammer that crushed Sestak?


In total, Katie McGinty ran 40% of the 30 ads presented to PA voters this cycle, and garnered over 40% of the vote. The Sestak camp aired seven ads, while the lagging candidate in the race, John Fetterman, ran just four.

Dem Norm 472
Candidate Vote % Vote # Ads % Ads Avg. Ace Score Democrat Voters
Katie McGinty 648,087 42.5% 12 40.0% 658
Joe Sestak 498,238 32.7% 7 23.3% 654
John Fetterman 294,499 19.3% 4 13.3% 652

McGinty’s story

Trailing in April polls and with as many as a third of the State’s Democratic likely voters undecided, McGinty and her supporters loosened the purse strings. Here’s where it starts to get interesting. McGinty ran twice as many ads in April (eight total), but the effectiveness of those ads (as measured by the holistic Ace Score) remained consistently high (Ace scores of 601-687). Message consistency and quality was a key McGinty strength, especially late in contest.


The McGinty campaign didn’t air the most Attention-getting ad of the primary. She also didn’t run the most Credible ad. Those were achieved by other candidates. But what McGinty did do was run a series of really good ads. Her “Working Families,” which told her story and also mentioned her support of Obamacare and her (not surprising) Presidential endorsement, posted one of the highest positive Impact *(Impact Score: 71) within the two weeks preceding the vote. Timing plus high Impact is the key to success.

In addition, outside spending brought meaningful effect to McGinty’s campaign on two fronts. The first hammer was the DSCC funded “Tania Modres” ad. This spot (released with just two weeks to go in the primary) was not only the best overall ad of the race (Ace Score: 719 – that’s 247 points above the political norm this year), it was the most Relevant, and the Most Agreeable (the ad viewers found most amenable to their beliefs). It also tied with her “Working Families” theme for strongest positive Impact. To seal the deal, the pro-McGinty Women Vote PAC released a “No Spin” slam against Joe Sestak that posted the highest negative Impact (35). The spot aired on the same day as her most Impactful (positive Impact) “Working Families,” and garnered high Attention and Credibility scores with its presentation of New York Times headlines and validated facts. This one-two punch of High Positive Impact and most successful negative impact ads so close to voting day were brilliant.

 Joe Sestak’s story

The Sestak camp aired a total of eight ads during the primary, but didn’t turn up the volume when the race got heated as polling day drew near. He just wasn’t in front of voters with enough new messaging, and strong enough messaging, to break through the McGinty onslaught. Sestak debuted just one ad with less than two weeks to go before polling day, and his April arsenal was noticeably less effective. The average Ace of Sestak ads tumbled to a 639 (from 675 in March). In fact, his lowest performing ad, “Standing Up” (Ace: 592) was the last message he communicated to voters, airing on April 16th, in the final week of the race. What’s that saying about ending on a high note?

Sestak actually put out not one, but the two highest (positive) Impact ads of the race, both with scores of 72. However, both of these ads debuted way back in March (March 16th and March 29th), which in a heated, well-funded campaign, translates into distant memories by voting day. Unfortunately for Joe, he put out his weakest message while the McGinty campaign was firing on all cylinders.


Consistent and Meaningful Messaging

Sounds obvious but this is particularly important for political candidates. The winning McGinty campaign communicated a clear and consistent image to voters of who the candidate was and what she represented. Your supporters need to feel a kindred connection if you expect to build a loyal following. Despite no mention of qualifications or experience (which was not her strength), this candidate connected. Campaign frontrunners get beat all the time by forgetting about the emotional aspect of their messaging. Or worse, by having too many different message points confusing voters, or the having their most salient points get watered down.

Maintain a Constant Presence and End with a Power Punch

Not only does the successful candidate need to be in front of voters on a regular basis, but the last messages voters hear better be the best.

McGinty moved into high gear as Election Day drew near, with five of her eight ads airing in the two weeks immediately preceding the primary. McGinty delivered the perfect one-two punch (best positive impact score, and best negative impact score on the same day). In contrast, Sestak aired just one more ad in April vs. March, for a total of 4 the entire month, and he debuted just one ad (his weakest) with less than two weeks to go before polling day.

Spend Wisely

Yes, money is important, but it has been reported that Joe Sestak raised about $4.1 million – an amount in the same ballpark as McGinty. Where did it go? He barely increased his presence when the race heated up, and he put his worst foot forward to close it out. Had he tested his ads, he could have put more of those dollars against the highly Impactful ads he clearly had in his arsenal instead of just running the last one produced. Plus, aligning the most impactful ads closer to voting day is critical. Timing is everything.

Use Negative Ads Sparingly

At Ace Metrix, we test hundreds of ads on a weekly basis and read millions of viewer verbatims every year – including those for political ads. We can tell you that voters detest smear campaigns, blaming the messenger for being a negative, attacking candidate. Moreover, many of them will dig in their heels even more in their support for the candidate being smeared. So attack ads are risky. But they can be done effectively and with great impact, as the Women Vote PAC proved in this race. You ideally want an ad with strong Breakthrough, with high Credibility based on verifiable facts, produced in a non-tabloid fashion, aired at a crucial point in the election cycle. Too many too soon, such as in this year’s presidential race, just wears voters down – and they tune out.

In this case study, a highly Impactful attack ad, perfectly timed, added to McGinty’s momentum while taking the air out of Sestak’s finish. There is an art to the negative ad; subtle changes in message, tone, and visuals can be the difference between successfully impacting voter behavior vs. backfiring and hurting your own candidate. Knowing this before airing is essential.

Know Which Ads Are Great Ads – and Use Them!

With all the noise on the airwaves at campaign time, a candidate needs ads that are going to break through the clutter, and have impact. The technology exists to quickly and cost-effectively test the effectiveness of ads – and also know how opponents’ ads are working (or not). Given the millions of dollars going into these campaigns, it’s a small but mighty investment for any candidate with their eye on the prize. The current “spray and pray” mentality can cost you dearly, as the Sestak experience illustrates.

The key point in all of this is that campaigns need to control what they can control. Sestak couldn’t control the Democratic establishment support of McGinty, or for Vice President Biden stumping for her the day before the election, or for her endorsement from the President himself. But he could (or should) have been in control of his own message quality and timing, which would have given him the best shot.

Katie McGinty won with a powerful combination of dollars spent, number of messages aired, ad effectiveness, consistent messaging, and share of voice during the important final two weeks. Based on the effectiveness of her ads overall, and the number of top performing ads across multiple dimensions in her arsenal, the election results should come as no surprise. With the size of her war chest adding weight behind these great ads, it’s no wonder the Democratic voters in Pennsylvania heard her loud and clear. And they liked what they heard.


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