It was one of many ads that John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political scientist, and I showed to panels of people throughout the campaign. We ran a weekly experiment called SpotCheck in which we randomly assigned a representative sample of 1,000 people to see one of two campaign ads. We evaluated the ads’ persuasive effects and asked people to evaluate the ads on such criteria as whether the ad made them happy, hopeful, angry or worried.
By far, Mr. Sanders’s “America” was the ad from 2016 that made SpotCheck’s raters the happiest and the most hopeful. Nearly 80 percent of viewers said the ad made them at least a little bit happy and hopeful in the week it debuted — including over half of the Republicans who saw it.
We paired the ad with a spot from Hillary Clinton called “All the Good,” which also tested well. It featured the commanding voice of Morgan Freeman and a moving string soundtrack, yet only half the raters said this ad made them happy and hopeful.
Mr. Sanders’s ad also made people feel better about our democracy and lifted his favorable ratings compared with those who saw a nonpolitical ad or the spot from Mrs. Clinton.
We asked people to think like an ad maker who was advising candidates. Would they tell the campaign to “run the ad a lot” because it was “good at accomplishing its goal?” Was it “good, but not great?” Or worse, did the ad need to be shelved because it “just doesn’t work?”
Here again Mr. Sanders’s “America” did better than any other ad. More than half of the people who saw this ad said they would advise the campaign to run it a lot — including 51 percent of Republicans and almost 60 percent of independents.
When I recently heard Tad Devine, Mr. Sanders’s chief strategist, talk about making this ad at a campaign post-mortem at the University of Southern California, he described the care with which each frame of the ad was chosen and later told the story about finding out that the iconic folk tune would be available for the campaign to use. He seemed to realize he was making an ad for the ages.
Other ads that made voters feel good included John Kasich’s “America: Never. Give. Up.”
It was another American pride ad, in this case about the “hardscrabble” upbringing of Mr. Kasich paired with a catchy, pseudo-funk soundtrack. It scored particularly high on hopefulness.
Two of Mrs. Clinton’s ads, “For Those Who Depend on Us” and “Quiet Moments,” which discussed her commitment to children, college affordability and health care, inspired people but with larger partisan divides than the Sanders ad.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum were the ads that made people angry or worried. Most attack ads fall into this category, but one ad that scored high was Mr. Trump’s general election ad titled “Laura.”
The ad is more a contrast ad than an attack ad, mentioning Mrs. Clinton’s policies only once. The ad features Laura Wilkerson telling the story of her son’s death. Josh, she explains, was brutally killed by a man who entered the country illegally. The ad is emotional largely because of Laura’s intimate conversation with viewers.
Nearly two-thirds of people who saw the ad said it made them at least somewhat worried, and 85 percent said it made them angry. There may be differences across the parties in what about the ad made people angry, but one revealing statistic is that 51 percent of independents said they thought the ad was telling the truth.
Despite delivering emotionally, “Laura” didn’t move the needle much for Mr. Trump in terms of his favorable ratings relative to Mrs. Clinton’s.
The same was true for some of the ads that made people feel hopeful. It seems that making people feel things is not always correlated with making them change their minds about the candidates. But these highly emotional ads may have had other payoffs we were not tracking, like affecting turnout, sparking conversations with friends, spurring donations or increasing media coverage.
As we write the history of the 2016 election, part of the story should be the way some ads inspired people to feel happy and hopeful about the country and the choices before them. The campaigns were not all about shouting, name-calling and identity politics. In rare moments, candidates from both parties gave voters something to feel that wasn’t dissatisfaction.