The Trump campaign has repeatedly credited its online prowess, particularly on Facebook, as a key to its 2016 victory.
Now, the Facebook employee who embedded with the Trump campaign to help it master message testing and iteration is working for Democrats. And he has revived one of the most important tactics he used for the Trump campaign at Acronym, a progressive nonprofit.
We wrote about the efforts of James Barnes and the Barometer team at Acronym on Tuesday, how they test the impact of their Facebook ads in real time through a series of surveys served to a custom audience before and after each ad campaign.
In tonight’s newsletter, where we embrace all things digital, we’re going to get a little more granular on three tests that Mr. Barnes and his team ran.
The Barometer team began running a test in January that featured two pieces of so-called boosted news — the practice of paying to place news articles in the newsfeeds of users — on the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani of Iran.
Overwhelmingly, the ad featuring the criticism from Mr. Carlson had a greater impact on voters, outperforming the ad with The Times article in nearly every demographic. Notably, the criticism from Mr. Carlson not only lowered approval of Mr. Trump among those who saw the ads (especially among those with less political knowledge, measured in this test by whether the user knew which party controlled the House), but it also made the Iran killing a more prominent issue with older voters.
This was the first test conducted by the Barometer team that showed the impact both of highlighting conservative criticism and of how different messengers for a similar topic — this time Tucker Carlson and The New York Times — can have vastly different effects.
The results were varied. For 18- to 34-year-olds, the health care workers were among the most effective messengers at driving voter enthusiasm, while the traditional political ad had little to no impact. For “low news consumption voters,” the negative news clips had a greater impact on driving down approval of the president.
Though the traditional political ad rarely performed as well as the two boosted news segments, it had a particular resonance in Michigan. While the political ad was being tested, Michigan was experiencing its first surge of coronavirus cases, and it appears the surrounding news environment helped the political ad resonate better than it did in other states like Arizona, where the outbreak was less severe.
Acronym also partnered with another progressive group, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, to run a test on a traditional political ad graphic and three voter testimonial videos. The graphic, which compared corporate profits with wages under the federal tax law from 2017, had a statistically significant impact over all on voters’ approval of Mr. Trump.
But the testimonials resonated more with “low political information” voters, including one video, titled “Jerry,” that also prompted a decline in trust for Mr. Trump’s handling of economic issues.
Of course, message testing is a messy mix of science and art, and all the usual caveats about noise and outliers apply to Barometer’s testing. But Acronym already asserts that the tests have helped inform the ad campaigns of its separate super PAC, Pacronym, and that users who saw those ads over the past two months of testing have shown a statistically significant decline in approval of Mr. Trump.
Whether that holds, or can scale, depends on how broadly these results can be shared around the broader Democratic universe.
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Ad of the week: A stinging split-screen
The image is striking: A shot of a woman’s eyes over a surgical mask juxtaposed with a photo of President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence smiling and shaking hands.
In a dozen states, officials have classified abortion as an “elective medical procedure” that would be prohibited under stay-at-home orders as a way of limiting access. Abortion rights advocates argue that those measures could motivate independent and suburban women in the fall, helping Democrats recreate the coalition that helped them win control of the House in 2018.
The message: Even as the Trump administration focuses on managing the coronavirus outbreak, the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America wants to remind voters that the administration is also taking steps to limit access to abortion and women’s health services. A split screen shows pictures of Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence smirking as photos of ambulances, emergency-room doctors and packed hospitals scroll across the bottom of the screen.
The takeaway: The ad wants to send a message to both the administration and the Democratic Party, arguing that no one should forget about women’s health in this moment of crisis. “As much as everything feels upside down right now, people are still driven by the same values, and Trump is on the wrong side of those values,” said Ilyse Hogue, head of NARAL.
— Lisa Lerer
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