Political ad wars 2012: is bipartisanship dead on arrival?

a maslansky luntz + partners initiative in collaboration with the Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group and SquareOff

In 2008 Barack Obama’s ability to sell the nation on a new, more bipartisan brand of leadership was central to his electoral victory. In the 2010 midterm battles the opposite was true. Tea Partiers and others rode to Washington not by promising bipartisanship, but its opposite: fierce and principled partisanship.

What can we expect from 2012? Will it once again be a banner year for candidates promising to reach across the aisle? Or has that dream been sufficiently dashed? We wanted to find out.

Following what Politico called "fake week" in Washington – a week characterized by a series of supposedly bipartisan photo ops with no real substance – we wanted to understand who, if anyone, was successfully delivering a message of bipartisanship on the campaign trail. And we wanted to understand what, if anything, candidates could say to make these appeals resonate with voters.

For our second installment in the Political Ad Wars 2012 project we tested a series of ads promoting bipartisan leadership from both Republican and Democratic congressional candidates. The testing was conducted with 150 Americans of various political stripes.

The results were telling.

Round 2: bipartisan appeals

1. This is no easy sell. With the current Congressional approval rating hovering well under 20%, American voters can agree on one thing: Washington is broken. Many see the bitterly partisan atmosphere as the root of this dysfunction. But while they believe things need to change, convincing them that you’re an agent for change is harder than ever.
Many see the partisan status quo as so entrenched it’s beyond the power of one candidate, however well-intentioned, to change it. In fact, many voters were surprised that candidates were still trying to sell them on their ability to make this change happen.

"It’s going to take a whole LOT of people like [Democratic Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp] to really make any changes. As long as lifetime politicians are entrenched with their power bases, this lady has no chance and will probably give up and not seek reelection. Washington is for rich power hungry BSers, not real normal working class people interested in change or fixing our problems." - Independent Voter

2. Attack your future colleagues. Go ahead, throw them under the bus. The fact is, getting voters to think you can change things requires demonstrating that you’re just as pissed off with the leaders in Washington as they are. Lamenting the status quo isn’t enough. Attacking the politicians who’ve created the current atmosphere is far more effective.

"[Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii] really recognizes our frustration with Washington." - Independent Voter

Below is a clip from Democrat House candidate Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. The lines you see represent the real-time response of voters to this advertisement. Notice how their favorability, as indicated by the lines going up, increases as she goes after corrupt politicians.
 


 
3. Let real people do the talking. Voters are programmed not to believe politicians. As we saw in our first round of testing, the best way to deliver a message is through the voice of real people. Voters are more inclined to hear average Americans out. Republican Senate candidate Laura Lingle followed this to a T. Her recent ad used a series of testimonials from average Hawaiians talking about her leadership and willingness to listen, an approach our respondents were moved by.

"This wasn’t an attack ad filled with statistics, it focused on the people of Hawaii. " - Republican Voter

"It showed there are lots of regular people supporting her… they expressed their belief in her ability to represent them well." - Democratic Voter

4. If you don’t give specifics, they don’t believe you have solutions. It’s not enough to feel their pain. For voters to truly believe you represent real change they have to think you stand for something. That means laying out specific policies you’d work towards if elected. Ads that don’t deliver this level of detail can be more easily dismissed.

Below is a clip from Democratic Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota laying out some of the policies she supports.
 


 
5. Make the "better angels" argument. Americans are fed up with our politics, but they haven’t stopped believing that there’s something special about the American character. Elevating the conversation to talk about our shared history and can-do spirit leaves voters feeling energized and more hopeful about the future. It also changes the equation from what one candidate can do to change things to what we as a people can do.

Despite his evident youth (watch the clip if you don’t believe me) Republican House candidate Weston Wamp of Tennessee does a particularly effective job putting this principal into practice.
 


 
6. Don’t admit you’re a Democrat/Republican. Five of the six ads we tested in this round didn’t make clear the candidates’ party affiliation. In fact, they hid it. And with good reason. Just saying your party’s name is a real turn off to Independents and voters on the other side of the aisle. While this information will no doubt endear you to your base, it’s guaranteed to make others stop listening to your message.

Democratic House candidate Wayne Herriman of Oklahoma provides a twofer of don’ts in this recent ad. Not only does he admit to being a Democrat – likely an even more dangerous move in deeply conservative Oklahoma – he also calls out his credentials as an "elder in the Church of Christ." While trotting out religious bona fides is a staple of American electioneering, this bit of background had a negative impact on Democratic and Independent voters alike. (In fairness to Herriman, anything related to God probably plays a lot better with Oklahomans than with a national audience.)
 


 
The bottom line? In 2012 bipartisanship is dead on arrival. See you in 2014.

Below is the complete rundown of ads cited in this week’s report. TV ads for testing were provided by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.

1. Heidi Heitkamp for U.S. Senate VIDEO
2. Wayne Herriman for Congress VIDEO
3. Weston Wamp for Congress VIDEO
4. Tulsi Gabbard for Congress VIDEO
5. Joe Donnelly for U.S. Senate VIDEO

Michael Maslansky (@m_mas) is CEO of maslansky luntz + partners, a language strategy and research firm, and author of The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics.

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