Bernie Sanders has the most effective political ads of the 2016 presidential race

Ace Metrix study of ad engagement tracks closely with poll data

An analysis from the ad-scoring outfit Ace Metrix ranked multiple political ads from Bernie Sanders’ campaign among the most effective of the 2016 presidential race so far.

Out of the 152 television and digital ads run by presidential candidates or independent super PACs since the middle of July last year, Sanders’ Dec. 28 spot, "Social Security," scored the highest aggregated total across more than half-a-dozen metrics like watchability, relevance and credibility as determined by a politically and demographically balanced panel of 500 people. Republican candidates snagged only two of the top 10 slots, a showing that could bode ill for that party’s eventual showing in November.

Of course, ad engagement isn’t the same as platform persuasiveness, but the data thus far closely tracks the results from both national polls and surveys in early voting states. For example, in addition to scoring ads according to the preferences of a representative sample of the population, Ace Metrix also broke down support by party. The most popular ad among respondents who self-identified as Republican was Ted Cruz’s "Rebuild Our Military, Kill the Terrorists" from Dec. 5, followed closely by Donald Trump’s only TV ad of the campaign, "Great Again." Those standings mirror the current state of the GOP primary in Iowa.

Likewise, among Democratic voters, Hillary Clinton takes six spots in the top 10 to Sanders’ four (and none for Martin O’Malley).  Independents are unsurprisingly ambivalent, with Sanders and Republicans Ben Carson and Bobby Jindal (now an also-ran) all making strong showings. In fact, it’s Sanders’ support among independents that pushes his ads to the top of the pack in a mixed field. He dominates in that cross-section of the electorate, with four of the top 6 ads.

But don’t expect the status quo to remain for long. "I think you’ll see the super-PACs specifically step up with advertising," said Mark Bryant, vice president of Ace Metrix POLITICS. "Priorities USA is a great example of that. There have been very few television ads aired by [the pro-Clinton super-PAC] Priorities USA — they’ve been Hillary for America ads. I think you’ll see that change, and it may not be until the general election." Sanders’ lack of a super PAC could hurt him, though it is that very lack that likely endears him to many independents and progressives.

If the ad metrics are a good prediction, Priorities USA needn’t spend its cash yet (it’s released one ad so far in the 2016 race), since Clinton seems likely to take the nomination with her stronger support among Democrats. Sanders supporters could respond that he has a better chance in the general election against whomever the Republicans field. Only one Clinton ad places among the top 10 ads overall — the tearjerker "Keith," which debuted right before Christmas.

The content of the ads reflects the issues the candidates are battling over. "Across the top ‘Always Democrat’-scored ads, themes really focus on higher family income, equal pay, making college affordable, fair and reasonable health care costs," Bryant said.

The GOP race is much messier, as the ads attest. "Across the top 10 ads scored by those that characterize themselves as ‘Always Republican’ voters, seven of those are anti-ISIS or anti-radical Islamic terrorism themed," Bryant said. "So I think you see more economically oriented themes among the Democratic ads, and you see more foreign policy or anti-terrorism themes across the top Republicans."

While the strongman persona plays well among the Republican faithful, it’s much less persuasive with the general population. Ads from Trump or Cruz don’t appear at all in the top 25 spots in a mixed field. Perhaps most telling, Bryant says political ads in general score about 100 points lower (out of 1,000 points) than similarly engaging non-political ads. Given that fewer than 54% of Americans who are eligible to vote in presidential elections actually do, the ad data once again seems pretty reliable.

Here are the top-ranked 2016 presidential campaign ads as determined by Ace Metrix:

Mixed Field

Among Independents

Among Democrats

Among Republicans

Follow I-Hsien on Twitter @ihsiensherwood.

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