Do Attack Ads Work?

A new project that instantly rates political campaign ads answers that question—and more

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Obama for America / YouTube

Still image from President Obama's political ad campaign.

The only voice you hear is Mitt Romney’s — singing, earnestly but not tunefully, “America the Beautiful.” The Republican nominee’s rendition plays as the Obama campaign flashes up charges about Romney’s outsourcing of jobs, Swiss bank accounts, and Caymans corporations against backdrops of shuttered factories and empty conference rooms. It is, in short, a powerful political ad.

This isn’t a matter of opinion. Thanks to a new Vanderbilt University/YouGov Ad Rating Project, we now have access to real-time assessments of the effectiveness of political ads — a project that arrives just as America is about to experience the most expensive presidential campaign ever. Expensive, and tough: “I think it’s very likely to be the most negative race since the advent of television,” John Geer, professor of political science at Vanderbilt and director of the university’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, told NPR this week.

(MORE: The Case for Negative Campaign Ads)

So how did Obama’s “America the Beautiful” attack on Romney do? Of the 600 Americans who participate in the Ad Rating Project, which was launched in partnership with the Brookings Institute,  50 % thought it was “memorable”  and 47 % said they “disliked” it — numbers that suggest it may prove effective. (Only 38% thought it “untruthful.”) “We thought it would be valuable to gauge what voters think about political ads, instead of pundits,” says Geer. “These will be timely, carefully conducted polls to find out how ads are affecting registered voters.”

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The sample of respondents is representative of the political spectrum, with an over-sample of 200 independents. Questions include “how each ad makes them feel, how believable it is, whether they think it is fair or not, whether it is memorable or not and whether they think the ads are negative or positive.” Coming 36 hours or so after the ad goes up, the results will give voters and reporters a sense of what’s working and what’s not in a campaign whose complexity often feels overwhelming.

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Political science of course has its limitations. “The truth of history is a very complex and occult matter,” Woodrow Wilson wrote in an article in the Century Magazine in September 1895. “It consists of things which are invisible as well as of things which are visible. It is full of secret motives, and of a chance interplay of trivial and yet determining circumstances; it is shot through with transient passions, and broken athwart here and there by what seem cruel accidents; it cannot all be reduced to statistics or newspaper items or official recorded statements.”

Yet statistics and polls have a role to play. By providing real-time data on whether ads are effective, Geer and his colleagues are offering clarity in a realm of public life that is much more frequently covered in the fog of war. Politics is more art than science, but science can help — and it surely can’t hurt.

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