Clay Aiken recently announced his candidacy for North Carolina’s second congressional district, a seat currently held by (R) Rep. Renee Ellmers. Aiken, perhaps best known for his second place finish in American Idol’s sophomore season in 2003, went on to become a professional musician, actor, and writer. Aiken’s announcement made national news, garnering media coverage from organization such as NPR, The New York Times, and the Washington Post. NC State students are unimpressed, until they watch his campaign ad.
Is Aiken’s ad effective? Survey says, “Yes!”
The North Carolina native announced his candidacy in a four-minute campaign video that can be seen here. Many political observers were impressed by the quality of the ad, which already has received more than half a million views on YouTube. Is Aiken’s ad effective?
A recent representative poll of NC State undergraduates (February 10-14, 2014) was conducted over the internet to explore whether viewing Aiken’s ad could change minds. The survey also tested whether Aiken’s homosexuality is a political liability among State students. Our poll has a response rate of 15% based on the 447 students who started taking the poll, although slightly fewer (392) finished it.
To explore these issues, we embedded an experiment within our survey. At random, one group (a “control group”) of students was assigned only to read basic information about Aiken, but they did not see the campaign video. This group saw the following text, “As you might know, Clay Aiken is a former second place winner from North Carolina on American Idol. He is believed to be a top 10 Idol alumni in terms of record sales. Aiken recently announced that he is trying to win the 2nd congressional district here in North Carolina, running as a Democrat.”
The two other groups (“treatment groups”), also chosen at random, were provided Aiken’s ad to watch, and also read the same text seen by the control group. These two treatment groups were identical except we added that Aiken was openly gay to the text, allowing us to measure the impact of information about Aiken’s homosexuality.
Watching the ad helped Aiken tremendously. Most people (51%) who only read the text had neutral views about Clay Aiken. Unfavorable views, though, were also more prominent than favorable ones (32% vs. 17%, respectively). Yet, Aiken’s favorability nearly doubled after watching the ad. Aiken’s favorability reached 37% among those who saw the video, an increase of twenty percentage points, while those saying they viewed him unfavorably declined to just 22% of the sample. The remainder, 41%, was neutral.
We find similar effects for perceptions of Aiken’s competency. If students only read the text description, 64% believed Aiken would be an incompetent public official. However, seeing the ad reversed these perceptions. Among those viewing it, 57% said Aiken would be a competent legislator.
Finally, most students believed that Aiken was liberal, regardless of whether or not they saw the video. However, the percentage saying Aiken was liberal declined slightly, from 81% to 75%, if they saw the ad. Being perceived as more moderate will probably be essential for Aiken to succeed in the 2nd district.
Ad works for Republicans, Independents, not just Democrats
Digging deeper, we find that the ad was effective on students of all political persuasions. Aiken was viewed favorably by just 6% of Republicans if they did not see the ad, a figure that increases to 16% among those viewing it. For independents, the impact of the ad was even greater. Not a single Independent viewed Aiken favorably if they didn’t watch the ad, but 33% of them had favorable impressions if they did. Likewise, Aiken’s favorability among Democrats increased from 39% to 57%, among those not viewing the ad compared to those who did.
NC State Students un-phased by Aiken’s Sexuality
Unsurprisingly, Aiken’s ad made no mention of his being openly gay, which could prove to be a campaign issue in a district widely regarded as politically conservative. We examined this by telling some students, but not others, that Aiken is openly gay. In prior PackPoll surveys, students overwhelming indicated their tolerance of homosexuality, such as opposing Amendment One and supporting gay marriage. Being gay, then, should not affect students’ opinions about Aiken. Social desirability, though, a phenomenon where respondents give “pleasing” but untrue responses in surveys, could exaggerate students’ tolerance.
We fail to find any significant difference in opinions about Aiken between the two treatment groups, only one of which was told Aiken was openly gay. The null effect is true not only for Aiken’s favorability, but also for his perceived competency and ideology. We also examined if Aiken’s homosexuality might have influenced partisans differently, but we again failed to uncover any meaningful change in attitudes across students holding different political orientations.