Why 2016 Candidates Better Off Spending on the Homeless Than TV Ads

Republican presidential candidates John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina and
Republican presidential candidates John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul appear during the Republican presidential debate at the Milwaukee Theatre, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

There is a marketing slogan that says "nothing kills a bad product faster than lots of advertising." Let's apply that to the GOP presidential primary campaign.

I have asserted many times that advertising in a presidential campaign is at best minimally effective. In fact, more money is wasted on ads than any other part of a campaign over the last 25 years. Millions and millions have been spent in presidential races without any demonstrable effect. It is an old tactic that no longer works well (or efficiently) in today's world of campaigns, but consultants continue to push this strategy either because they are trapped in old ways or have a vested financial interest.

There is good news: money may be wasted by presidential campaigns on advertising, but underfunded and more efficient campaigns can still win. Money is no longer as important in determining victory as it was in the past. The barrier to communication is as low as ever. You can communicate with thousands of people for free sitting at your desk through the touch of a computer keystroke. Message delivery is no longer dependent on paid advertising, and this democratizes communication more and more. This is a healthy development in our body politic.

Now let's get back to the GOP race and examine the ad spending and its effectiveness on getting voters to support candidates. I would argue that advertising has done more to eliminate "bad" candidates than it has helped. And let's look at ad spending specifically in the key early states of Iowa and New Hampshire which will help determine who the GOP nominee is for president. This analysis utilizes data on ad buys (both candidate and affiliated Super PACs) compiled by one of the best companies in the business, Kantar Media CMG.

Governors Rick Perry, Scott Walker, and Bobby Jindal spent millions on ads and are already out of the race for president. Super PACs couldn't save them.

Governor Kasich will have spent nearly $8 million on ads by the end of November and he's polling in single digits in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Ben Carson and Donald Trump have spent very little on advertising -- in some places none -- and lead the polls in nearly every state including Iowa and New Hampshire.

The most troubling signs of this are for Jeb Bush. By the end of November, he will have spent roughly $19 million in New Hampshire and Iowa, and Jeb is polling in single digits in both states. It seems that no matter how much he has spent, the consumers (voters) are not buying the product (Bush). So much for shock and awe.

So what does all this tell us?

Earned media (parlance for getting free media on news platforms) is the most powerful mode of communicating with voters. And to that end the four debates thus far have had more impact on this race than the millions spent on advertising. These debates caused Walker, Perry, and Jindal to drop out. They have caused Carly Fiorina to rise and fall. They have caused Bush to drift down from the upper teens to single digits of support. They have helped coaelesce Trump's support at about a quarter of voters. And they have helped Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz rise.

Candidates would be better off spending less time on raising money and more time on preparing a vision and a compelling message to deliver to the public. They would be much better positioned if they spent time and resources on preparing for debates and not on fundraisers.

The best campaigns will use advertising to reinforce a message delivered at a debate or in the press or through voter visits, and not as away to correct some fundamental flaws a candidate is carrying with them. As observers of this process and those interested in the outcome, pay attention to who seizes the moments, not fundraising totals.

And when we finally turn to the general election next summer and fall, the truth of limited ad effectiveness becomes even more true. Most ads get lost in the power of key moments, whether they be the conventions, the fall debates, candidate media opportunities, or unexpected events like the tragic Paris attacks. That is where this race will be won and lost, as it always usually is.

The good news is a compelling candidate can win without the most money, the bad news is campaigns continue to waste millions and millions of dollars. They would be better off building homes for the homeless with it, and solving some actual societal problems as real leaders do.

Matthew Dowd is an ABC News analyst and special correspondent. Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.