Politico

How Political Parties Can Win Converts


Most political advertisements fail. They might be memorable; they might be well-produced. But recent, high-quality political science studies conclusively show that ads have small effects on political views. Changing people’s minds about politics is hard. Two leading scholars recently summarized the evidence from dozens of rigorous studies of political campaigning, writing, “the best estimate of the size of persuasive effects in general elections … is zero.”

But what if the failure of political advertising is, at least in part, a failure of imagination? Almost all political ads, whether from candidates or party committees, are produced to achieve a very narrow goal: winning the next election. What if parties instead took a longer view, producing ads designed to win them new partisan supporters in election after election?

We recently conducted a series of randomized experiments to test whether parties can win over new loyalists, and we found that partisanship can be moved—at least to a point. When subjected to enough ads promoting a particular party, people’s partisan identities shift in the direction of that party. To be clear, the shift is small. But it isn’t entirely temporary. And the fact that it exists at all presents a significant opportunity.

Eighteen percent of Americans do not affiliate with either party; among eligible voters under 30, there are nearly 10 million such people. Winning over those voters, as well as converts from the other side, would be a huge boon for either party. Loyalists don’t only vote for the party in one election, after all. They vote for the party in every election, up and down the ballot, year after year. And this kind of behavior isn’t on the wane: The last election featured the lowest levels of ticket-splitting in decades. In our polarized age, partisanship—and party loyalists—rule.

Yet, remarkably, neither party devotes substantial advertising effort to cultivating converts. Roughly $8.5 billion was spent on TV and digital ads in the 2020 election, but those ads were almost entirely focused on candidates and policies, not partisan attachments. If the parties want to be smarter about how they spend their advertising dollars, our findings suggest they should consider focusing at least as much on building party identity as they do on supporting individual candidates.

We began our research by hiring two leading political advertising firms. (We’re keeping their names anonymous, but suffice it to say, POLITICO readers likely have heard of these companies and their clients.) We then presented both firms with two charges. First, make ads that you think might actually shift voters’ partisan identification. Both firms work with Democrats, so we asked them to make ads that could conceivably increase people’s identification with the Democratic Party. Second, we asked that each ad take into account one of the various theories that scholars have posited over the years to explain partisan identification.

Broadly speaking, we identified four such theories. One theory—call it the “it’s the economy, stupid” theory—holds that people become more supportive of parties that preside over good times when they’re in power. Another theory, the “issue proximity” theory, supposes that people support parties because of specific issue stances the parties take—say, on guns, immigration, the economy or abortion. A third, which we’ll label the “charisma” theory, says that people identify with parties when those parties have dynamic leaders, such as Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama. A fourth, grounded in social identity theory, says that people support parties that they believe stand for people like them—those who share their class, race, religion or other identity markers.

After the firms made the ads, over a two-year period, we enrolled nearly 18,000 people in online experiments, in which we randomly exposed each participant to an ad designed around one of the four theories. We already had measured our participants’ party identification beforehand. About two weeks after the ads were shown, we contacted the participants to ask them again about their party identification. Then we contacted them a year later and asked again. All of the ads focused on promoting the party, not a candidate seeking to win a particular election. (You can find links to some of the ads in the academic paper we’ve written about our research).

In our first studies, the individual ads didn’t do much. People’s partisan identities remained intact. And no one theory was clearly superior to the others. But as our research progressed, we tried something different. Rather than expose people just to one ad promoting one particular theory, we randomly assigned viewers different levels of “dosage.” Some people saw zero ads; some people saw three ads; some saw six. The people who saw multiple ads saw a jumble of different messages. (Because the ads were randomly assigned, we were able to compare study participants who saw the ads with those who did not see the ads, allowing us to isolate the effects of exposure to the ads.)

With this approach, we began to observe partisan change. At relatively high levels of dosage (only six ads—not much by the usual standards of a presidential campaign), people changed their partisan identification ever so slightly after seeing the ads. The highest dosage level increased Democratic identification by 4 percentage points immediately after exposure, with about half that amount still being statistically detectable two weeks later.

Our ads didn’t just affect partisan identification. We also found that showing people higher doses of party-promoting ads shifted whom they planned to vote for in coming elections and affected their evaluations of then-President Donald Trump. Partisan identity is usually understood as a root cause of political behavior. By moving it, we also appear to have moved real-world political decisions.

Our effects eventually faded. More than a year after our studies, we contacted our participants once more. This time, we couldn’t detect any effects. People’s partisanship had snapped back to where it was before we began our research.

To fully understand the implications of our findings—including whether sustained exposure to ads can keep a partisan shift intact—researchers will have to conduct bigger and better tests, deploying party-focused ads in the wild, on television and online, as actual elections are underway and at much higher dosages. They’ll also have to directly compare the long-term effects of ads that focus on parties with the effects of ads that focus on candidates.

But our research so far suggests that both parties could benefit from producing the kinds of ads we tested. (While our experiments focused on Democrats, the underlying theories of partisan change—issue proximity, economic stewardship, social identity and so on—are almost certainly applicable to both parties.) The gains would likely be small, at least to start, and they would require resources. But particularly in areas we now think of as dominated by one party—take Republican-ruled Alabama or Democratic-controlled Illinois—a long-term effort by the opposition to win new supporters might gradually change the political dynamics.

At the moment, political parties rarely produce the kinds of ads we tested. Indeed, when we first approached the advertising firms about this project, they were flummoxed by the request. None had ever made the kind of ads we asked them to make; they instead focused on ads of the sort we’re all familiar with—touting one particular candidate, in advance of one particular election. But this approach usually wastes an enormous amount of money in the short run, since persuasive effects are small and fleeting, and has no effect in the long run, since the ads are narrowly focused on candidates. So far as we know, the vast academic literature on the effects of political advertising includes no instances of candidate ads changing party identification.

Would more party-focused ads be good for American democracy? It’s possible they could increase polarization. If Democrats came across a pro-Democratic message, they might become even more staunchly Democratic. But shrewd parties would not aim their party-focused ads at existing partisans. Instead, they would target independents, or people who don’t feel attached to either party. This, in turn, could force the parties to moderate their messages for those voters, who are sometimes neglected in an era of play-to-your-base politics.

Minting partisans is difficult. But it’s not impossible, and it’s probably in the best interests of both parties to try.

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