Midterm Ads Test Messages with Help From Pollsters, Stretch Truth

During Clinton’s uphill re-election campaign in 1996, the president relied heavily on the aid of pollsters. With the help of strategists such as Doug Schoen, Dick Morris, and Mark Penn, the president identified the concerns and personalities of swing voters (such as whether they preferred the TV shows Friends or Home Improvement) and sampled slogans — even entire paragraphs of speeches — in order to discover how to appeal to them.

In the midst of this re-branding of the president and the strategists’ effort to breed general optimism heading into the election, consultant Mark Penn, who later ran Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign, remarked:

“The sense that the country is moving in the right direction is something that Americans have to be led to conclude… They won’t conclude it on their own.”

This comment reveals the contrived, somewhat coercive nature of political advertising and image management, as well as of the feedback-loop effect of the focus group sessions, opinion polls, and public relations tactics that inform them.

Prior to the 2014 midterm elections, both parties have sought the advice to pollsters and strategists to learn what to say to win the support of independents — and how to say it.

For instance, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), led by Rep. Steve Israel of New York, has carried out a project with 4 pollsters and 16 focus groups in 67 House districts to test ideas, attacks, and themes in preparation for the upcoming midterm ads.

One pollster that assisted the DCCC is Global Strategies Group, whose results from one report offer an insight into how Democrats are likely to appeal to independents over the next few months.

One preliminary question asked respondents to choose between two competing themes. For instance, when asked to choose between “more economic growth” and “less income inequality,” respondents favored the former to the latter by a margin of 80 percent to 16 percent.

Similar question results reinforced the conclusion that Democrats will emphasize and promise economic growth; but, so will Republicans. In fact, the survey found that 37 percent of independents trust Republicans to grow the economy versus 26 percent who trust Democrats.

However, according to the survey, independents trust Democrats to expand “income opportunity to all” by a margin of 36 percent to 29 percent compared to Republicans.

The following question results foreshadow how Democrats may try to appeal to uncommitted voters:

independents economy

According to these results, independents and nonpartisan undecided voters prefer Democrats to Republicans if the former affirm that raising the minimum wage leads to more economic growth (versus Republicans who believe this measure leads to less economic growth) and that the minimum wage leads to greater income opportunity (rather than layoffs for workers).

The GSG report encourages Democrats to offer “a new argument for increasing the minimum wage,” such as: “Increasing the minimum wage leads to more economic growth by rewarding hard work and improving workers’ productivity.”

In other words, Democrats can be expected to appeal to independents by emphasizing the straightforward economic benefits of raising the minimum wage — the economic effects of which are rather mixed and not entirely salutary — and contrast themselves with Republicans who oppose this measure or are otherwise self-interested or out of touch with the middle class.

Indeed, one ad already out opposing Iowa Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst criticizes her for not endorsing the federal minimum wage.

Republicans also have their ears to the ground and are shifting their views — and their ads — as Americans adapt to the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

After spending $400 million on ads in early 2014 opposing the ACA and calling for its repeal, Republicans are shifting their strategy now that 6 in 10 Americans support revising the ACA instead of scrapping it. Republicans from Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Nevada, for instance, are promising to amend the health care law, and the Chamber of Commerce is running ads offering a more conciliatory approach to fix the law.

However, Republicans will likely be reluctant to offer alternatives.

Eric Cantor, who lost his primary contest in Virginia, facedinternal opposition from his party in 2013 when his Helping Sick Americans Now Act was denied a House vote — a plan one conservative media activist denounced as “Cantorcare.” Cantor’s calls for a vote on an alternative health care reform bill were again rebuked in 2014.

Bill McInturff, co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, a leading Republican consulting firm, anticipates that Republicans will tout unpopular parts of the law prior to the midterm election. He also expects that ads will feature testimonials from citizens who have been adversely affected by the ACA.

Already, both sides are stretching the truth while deploying their respective strategies.

For instance, FactCheck.org investigated an ad paid for by Americans for Prosperity attacking Rep. Gary Peters (D-MI) and his endorsement of the ACA. The ad features the Wendt family, which claims that the ACA is unaffordable and hurting the middle class because the family’s plan was cancelled for failing to meet the ACA’s minimal standards.

However, the ad neglects to mention that the family was offered a more comprehensive and more affordable plan, which the family rejected because it would have forced their children to enroll in CHIP — a government-run program — rather than remain on a private plan.

Democrats have also gone too far to characterize Republican candidates as opponents of the middle class. For instance, Senate Majority PAC ran an advertisement claiming that Senate candidate Thom Thillis, the current House speaker in North Carolina, proposed a tax plan that would have cut rates for corporations and the wealthy while raising taxes for 80 percent of the people in the state.

However, the author of the report that is cited for this 80 percent figure latercommented that this number is inaccurate. She said that 49 percent of taxpayers would have seen a tax cut, while 35 percent would have felt a tax increase.

As there are still a number of Republican primaries remaining, it remains uncertain how many tea party candidates will win Republican nominations. Enough tea party victories could signal widespread dissatisfaction with the ACA that might force the GOP rightward and cause the establishment to switch to a more combative tone toward the law — though with an unclear effect on independents, whose stances on the ACA vary.

Both parties are depending on the reliability of focus-group and survey results to craft their strategies and ad-messages in ways that appeal to the professed opinions of swing voters. Of course, this class of unaffiliated voters cannot be counted as a unified bloc with its own orthodoxy. it is not, in the words of Harold Rosenberg, “a herd of independent minds” — no matter how much the pollsters and politicians who court independents wish it were so.

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