by Lynn Vavreck
Lynn Vavreck’s forthcoming book is a followup to The Gamble, the real-time election book she published with John Sides in 2012. Their current project, written along with Michael Tesler, is a data-driven, real-time analysis of the 2016 presidential election that will show how data and political science research reveals what matters (and what doesn’t) in the campaign for the White House.
Amidst a nominating contest filled with bluster and ad-hominem attacks, John Kasich is presenting himself as something different. His campaign has a notably positive tone and although Mr. Kasich trails his opponents in the delegate count, he continues to campaign mainly on empowerment and experience—and there’s some evidence that people like it.
Mr. Kasich’s campaign has run fewer television ads than his opponents, but his ads have proven compelling to analysts. Writing about Mr. Kasich’s first television spot, Philip Rucker of The Washington Post described the ad as having “arresting images,” “moody shots,” and a narrator with a “gravelly voice.” The music in the ad is equally interesting—part blues and part rock with a dash of grunge. It lends an authenticity to the ad’s message: John Kasich lived a “hard-scrabble life in a rusty steel town” and now he’ll take that grit to Washington and “never give up.”
But is this ad attractive to voters? Do they engage with its positive message? If Mr. Kasich blankets the airwaves in the upcoming days can he gain traction?
To answer this question I combined analytic tools provided by G2 Analytics, SageEngage, and YouGov with support from Vanderbilt University and UCLA to convene a virtual focus group. In this project, roughly 1,000 people were divided into four groups to watch and react to two political ads in real time. Some participants saw one of Mr. Kasich’s ads, others saw one of Donald Trump’s first ads. If viewers liked what was playing on their screen they could respond by clicking a bell and if they disliked it they could click a buzzer. They could do this as many times as they wanted in either direction. People were also asked some questions about the ads after they played. The participants are representative of the U.S. population and were divided equally and randomly into four groups of roughly 250 each: the first saw no campaign ads, the second saw only Mr. Kasich’s ad, the third saw only Mr. Trump’s ad, and the fourth group saw both campaign ads.
During both 30-second spots, viewers registered both positive and negative ratings. On average, the moment people liked best in Mr. Kasich’s ad was near the end, when the voice-over says, “They say our best days are behind us,” as these words appear on the screen and are also read aloud with punch: “America, Never. Give. Up.” This reference to a halcyon past is as close as Mr. Kasich gets in this ad to attacking Mr. Trump, whose slogan, “Make America Great Again” implies a return to a past far better than the present. In Mr. Kasich’s ad, viewers liked this rallying cry for American hopefulness best of all. His positive message moved people who saw this ad.
The part of Mr. Trump’s ad that people liked was near the middle when black and white images of military engagement are shown and the voice-over says, “He’ll quickly cut the head off ISIS and take their oil.” The Trump ad also talks about a “temporary shutdown of Muslim’s entering the United States,” and building a wall on our Southern border that “Mexico will pay for.” Although the ad isn’t attacking any Republican candidates directly, it begins with images of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to clarify Mr. Trump’s positions from “the politicians” with whom he disagrees. His no-nonsense language moved people who saw this ad.
Overall, 42 percent of viewers who saw only the Trump ad rated it both as unfair and negative in tone. Only eight percent of the Kasich-only viewers felt the same about the ad they watched. Nearly half the Trump viewers thought the ad was untruthful relative to 16 percent of the Kasich viewers. Emotionally, 70 percent of the people who saw only Mr. Trump’s ad said it made them feel angry while only 22 percent of the people who saw only Mr. Kasich’s ad felt this way. Similarly, 74 percent of the Trump viewers felt worried after seeing the ad; only 37 percent of the Kasich viewers were left worried.
Viewers were also asked about how happy or hopeful the ads made them feel. Mr. Kasich’s ad left viewers a bit more of each, but only by a margin in the single digits. In terms of overall memorability of the ad, Mr. Trump’s ad wins—63 percent said they thought the ad was memorable compared to only 39 percent for Mr. Kasich’s ad. Both ads increased support for their sponsor in a hypothetical general election contest against Hillary Clinton by a few points (Mr. Kasich’s gave him a bigger boost).
Mr. Kasich’s ad left people somewhat happier and hopeful—and didn’t worry or anger them as much as Mr. Trump’s. They rated Mr. Kasich’s ad 10-points above the “average political ad” in overall quality while placing Mr. Trump’s ad 5-points below the average ad.
In the end, however, viewers thought Mr. Trump’s relatively negative, unfair, and untrue ad (according to their own ratings) was more memorable. This was true even for viewers who saw and rated both ads together, but memorable may not be the same thing as effective. On average, people rated Mr. Kasich’s ad as making them happy and hopeful—and as being higher in overall quality—and there’s some evidence to suggest that despite saying Mr. Trump’s ad was more memorable, Mr. Kasich’s empowering message moved people: among people who saw both ads relative to those who saw no ads at all, people increased their favorable ratings of Mr. Kasich by 11 points; Mr. Trump’s favorability, however, only increased by 3 points.