Wide Angle Research, a nonprofit focused on moving audiences in political conflict, isn’t abandoning the hard-hitting tactics that have become a hallmark of late campaign season. Instead, agents took it even further with online spots intended to exploit some Americans’ darkest fears.
In one of the ads, a 10-year-old girl is sedated in a hospital after being raped. A doctor tells her parents that she will have to come back for a pregnancy test under a new government mandate. The ad’s narrator says that states are enacting abortion bans with no exceptions, adding that “a rapist can impose himself on a child. But it takes Republican rule to force her to have her baby.
In another location, parents are being arrested for child abuse for supporting their transgender child. A third focuses on violent threats against election workers.
The style and format of the ad campaign, produced with help from the 76 Words company, is built on more than 18 months of unorthodox research, including studies that delved into voters’ psyches. Agents at Wide Angle Research believe this represents a new frontier in digital campaigns.
“It’s all in the news now about how the Dems are focusing on abortion because they realize it’s a very powerful issue for them. And it is,” said Ineke Mushovic, executive director of Wide Angle Research. “But what does this have to do with the fact that election offices are now fortifying themselves with bulletproof glass because election officials are scared for their lives? How does this relate to [Texas] Govt. [Greg] Abbott Tells Children’s Agencies They Need to Investigate Parents Who Support Their Trans Kids? Democrats can make this choice about one issue (abortion), or Democrats can tie the issues together and make them something bigger.
Launched in 2021, Wide Angle Research isn’t among Beltway’s most recognizable names. Indeed, his website is sparse, Mushovic ran the project from a cabin in the mountains of Colorado. And the group declined to list the names of its backers, except to say it is backed by several wealthy individuals who, in Mushovic’s words, “believe it’s time to fight back and they don’t.” hadn’t seen in the Democratic Party”. Party.” But the company has relationships with other entities in the party ecosystem, including Indivisible and UltraViolet; and it has partnered with the Future Majority group for its research. This work, although under the radar, was greeted by officers in the party tent.
“This research is an attempt to deepen American voters’ understanding of most political research,” said Simon Rosenberg, a longtime Democratic strategist.
“It’s like adding a third dimension to a two-dimensional image. I find this job exciting. [and] fascinating.”
As the spots depict a dystopian future under Republican control of Congress, the strategists behind them said they had done everything possible to avoid cliched statements such as “Republicans are putting our freedom at risk”, which they have found to be much less convincing. Instead, they focused on telling full stories that weave together a range of issues that they believe trigger the most emotional intensity.
Those leading the push hope the spots will allow Democrats to be much bolder and — in their view — more like Republicans when it comes to using issues that elicit visceral responses. They think the extensive research — thousands of interviews, including dozens of one-on-one meetings conducted online with voters in the battleground state — could also help other party members as they begin to refine their closing arguments for the midterms.
One of the conclusions of this research is that animation actually works.
Mushovic said that with traditional political ads, people often erect a barrier and ultimately it becomes difficult to move them. “They were like, ‘He’s an actor. It’s wrong. I don’t like this person’s voice. And it creates this kind of overarching objection,” she said.
“But now, because it’s a cartoon format, people haven’t thrown that barrier. Obviously, they’re not real people. And they’ve let their imaginations run wild,” added Mushovic: “It allowed them to really start wrestling with whether this could be real in the future?”
The format was only one element of the research carried out by the group. He also asked loads of open-ended questions that push the boundaries. They invited participants to share their own images and photos to highlight how they felt to capture the times when words simply weren’t enough. The use of so-called “metaphor elicitation” was specifically designed not only to explore what people think, but also why they think and feel what they do.
Respondents were asked if the Democratic and Republican parties were a touch, feel or texture, which would they be and why? The things that came to mind when people thought of Democrats were cotton, suede, and hugs. Republicans got rougher materials like sandpaper, corduroy and dollar bills slapping someone in the face, the research showed.
Indeed, a common image that emerged from Democrats was that of a cuddly bunny (Republicans were portrayed as sinister clowns).
“We are cute. We are cuddly but ultimately we are ineffective,” Mushovic said. “You just don’t bring a rabbit to a shootout.”
Among the other questions asked:
Which party would you prefer to hold power of attorney over your finances? Fifty-five percent of independents chose Republicans, who they said would be more frugal with this.
With which political party would you rather be on a desert island? Eighty-three percent of independents chose the Democrats, saying they would make a better company.
And, finally, they asked which part would you rather be in charge of during a zombie apocalypse? Among independents, Republicans also won this one: 60% versus 30% for Democrats, with 10% choosing a combination of the two.
Some of the answers the company had half-anticipated – like the respondent who said he would hate for Democrats to be in charge during the zombie apocalypse because they would stop to ask zombies for their favorite pronouns. Other responses, however, were less predictable. A white man said if it was just about surviving the zombie apocalypse, he would have chosen the Republicans. But as he began to think of the wider community, he feared they were leaving many more behind.
Wide Angle Research officials believe these responses provide more important insights into voter behavior than traditional polling questions, such as what issues they prioritize and how they think the country is moving forward or backward.
Gretchen Barton, research director for Future Majority who worked on compiling the studies, said an encouraging finding for the group is that they believe the results may have the power to neutralize voters’ real concerns about the economy.
“When we have that strong message — which is what you see in this campaign — the cost-of-living salience plummeted and the desire to maintain freedoms and concerns about Republican rule peaked,” Barton said, adding that it shows such concerns “may be a priority for voters.
But turning comprehensive discoveries into effective attacks was always a challenge. Of more than a dozen different approaches to attacking Republicans tested by the group, most fell flat or failed completely.
The companies tested the “MAGA-Republican” line of attack currently favored by Democrats, including President Joe Biden, and were unimpressed with the results. Democrats and leftist voters loved and intuitively understood the term. But the researchers ran into trouble with Independents and Moderates, who defined the term much more narrowly, to a few Republican politicians they considered extreme. That, in turn, made them feel like they could still support Republicans for the most part.
Finally, the group found that Republicans felt energized by the term “MAGA”. Some had fond memories of recent presidential campaigns and felt the movement had grown beyond Donald Trump. For them, it was as if they were being unfairly portrayed as extreme.
Ultimately, the strategists discovered that the most effective line of attack was among the simplest: that Americans felt they could not trust the GOP with power.
As the final stretch of the campaign approaches, Wide Angle Research chooses to make its research available on an open source basis. Some entities are already taking advantage of this. The group Equality Florida, which advocates for Florida’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community, is set to air adaptations of WAR’s commercials on television broadcast in Florida.