The U.S. presidential race is so close and must-watch TV, a candidate of a third-party party who was dropped by his party when his TV ad was insulting and racist kept a laser focus on testing, saying it was both “fun” and an important qualification.
“It’s hard to believe you can talk about your campaign in scientific terms, but the reality is these tests help you to answer questions and present your message well,” said Abigail Spanberger, a Democratic candidate for Virginia’s 7th congressional district, in a November 2016 interview. “When you’re down by 7 points, it’s hard to mount a comeback if you don’t like the way your message looks.”
Voters in Virginia did not like the message she was presenting. And on election night, in their so-called “monkey trial,” she lost to Republican incumbent Barbara Comstock. When pressed by the voters on why she tested with that particular ad, Spanberger’s campaign spokeswoman said it was a sign of respect for the voters.
Even when candidates don’t always look the part, their reliance on testing remains. Former Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson started his campaign by running test-market research that promised to show that his message resonated across the country. When he lost, it was partly because his had been tested and not all the surveys indicated that his message appealed to the potential voters in the swing states.
Candidates, and their political teams, are now turning to new technologies and methods that allow them to conduct similar experiments, even before they close their campaigns.
For him, the social media phenomenon known as “dark ads” enable those teams to test messages to generate responses from a different audience. Those consultants often let the candidates and their families participate in the test-marketing events — sometimes with the help of an actress.
With the rise of name recognition and social media, voters are more likely to become familiar with a candidate, and to sign up for polls, than they used to be.
Nonetheless, thousands of politically active veterans ask candidates who have been tested if they would participate in another test. They watch popular videos, see which ones an ad reenacts and take the lead roles — for a higher cash prize, of course. Some campaigns are willing to offer such bonuses to the candidates who participate.
Politicians from both parties have been familiar with such tests for years. They turn to them for several reasons: It provides a “palatable” test to see what messages resonate with voters; candidates need information about how they should present their message to the public.
When things don’t work out, such as when a candidate loses their primary in a strong field, or loses their election in an overwhelming margin, such tests allow them to address the voters’ disappointment in the most natural way: admitting they were test-marketing material.
Rovian politics has been a shorthand term for a test-marketing approach to the electorate ever since George W. Bush used it as a way to figure out what to say about Ann Coulter. But this time, it is not only politicians who make use of political science tests. Super PACs use them too.
“I just saw one super PAC doing it on Twitter,” Slate writer Alex Pareene tweeted on Aug. 26, after Donald Trump Jr. retweeted a political science statistician who tweeted, “Wouldn’t surprise me if Clinton became first candidate of a major party to run an ad based on a (1) Hill test.”
Another Trump son, Eric, replied, “She’s running a super PAC!” to which Pareene responded, “I hope he didn’t mean Hill test in a negative way — maybe she gets some facts wrong.”
In a tweet on Monday, Clinton strategist Joel Benenson tweeted, “Have to say I am a fan of Hill test – on which topics people like positions & likability.” That was in reference to the fact that Clinton’s polling show she is viewed favorably by a record 59 percent of independent voters.