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Perspective: How a bipartisan ad from Utah helped reduce partisanship

New research shows that the ad featuring Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and his opponent reduced viewers’ support for undemocratic actions

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In “One Nation,” the 2020 ad released jointly by Utah’s Democratic and Republican candidates, Gov. Spencer Cox and Chris Peterson appear together.

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Campaign ads aren’t known for bringing Americans together, but a Utah public service announcement has shown that it’s possible.

New research about “One Nation,” the 2020 ad released jointly by Utah’s Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates, found that watching the ad reduced viewers’ support for undemocratic practices, such as forgoing democratic principles for partisan gain or using violence against members of another party.

With the midterms less than two weeks away, the 30-second spot, once described as a “master class in leadership,” merits renewed attention.

In the ad, Republican Gov. Spencer Cox and Democratic candidate Chris Peterson take turns talking about their shared values, and both commit to accepting the results of the presidential election.

“We live in a very conservative state, so as a Republican, I felt pretty confident about my chances to win, but we saw what was happening at the national level and it was getting more and more ugly,” Cox said in an interview on Twitter Spaces.

“I had this crazy idea that I should get together with my opponent, see if he would be willing to do an ad, if you could do something together, and not sure exactly what it would look like, but something where we had a Republican and a Democrat standing together on the same stage saying, ‘Hey, we’re Americans first, whatever happens.’”

Peterson agreed, a mutual friend wrote the script and an ad agency put it together. Although Cox said a few people he told about the ad called it a bad idea, “reaction was just overwhelmingly positive.”

The ad was later tested by Stanford University’s Strengthening Democracy Challenge. Researchers sorted through 252 interventions, contributed by social scientists, activists and others, that could potentially depolarize people and reduce anti-democratic beliefs. They selected 25 interventions to show 31,000 U.S. partisans and found 23 of them reduced partisan animosity “significantly.”

The Utah ad, submitted by University of Utah assistant professor Ben Lyons, was one of the most effective, coming in at No. 2 for reducing support for partisan violence and No. 4 for reducing support for undemocratic practices, including overthrowing an election, gerrymandering and trying to withhold votes from people.

“I think what happens is when everyday Americans see their leaders committing to basically accepting the results of an election, committing to civility, it helps everyday Americans to recalibrate their perceptions about American politics, and that seemed to have a very important effect on reducing their support for these practices,” said James Chu, an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University.

Ads in Utah’s competitive U.S. Senate race this year aren’t designed to reduce polarization, and outside groups are pouring money into the race. Luckily, it’s not just politicians who can fight against rising partisanship. Showing everyday Americans with different political views can be effective, researchers found.

Some other top-performing interventions were “Civity Storytelling,” a series of short videos about Americans from different backgrounds talking about themselves, and Heineken’s 2017 British “Worlds Apart” ad in which people with opposing views on feminism, climate change and transgender identity get to know each other and talk about their differences over drinks. In another high-performing intervention, Democrats and Republicans were asked their views across a range of issues and learned most members of the other party weren’t as extreme as they imagined.

The research provides best practices for how to reduce partisan animosity, and there’s a few common themes among the most effective interventions:

  • They show people with different political beliefs who are relatable and sympathetic.
  • They show areas of common cross-party identity.
  • They show empathy toward and perceived similarity to members of another party.

While the paper is packed with good news for those who want to lower the heat in U.S. politics and make good on “e pluribus unum,” there are some specific post-Jan. 6 challenges. For one, an ad like “One Nation” couldn’t happen today in races with candidates who deny the results of the 2020 election, and there are 201 of them, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Some efforts to reduce partisanship can also do the opposite. One intervention, “Democratic Fear,” was a top performer for reducing support for undemocratic practices and partisan animosity, but it actually increased support for political violence among Republican viewers.

The video showed facts about democratic erosion and footage of political violence in Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Russia and Turkey, and then asked “Could it happen here?” followed by footage of the attack at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Researchers suggested this footage increased support among Republicans since many believe the attack was a legitimate protest.

Researchers said their findings can give elected officials, media professionals, community leaders and others a tool kit for how to reduce polarization, not to mention optimism that things can get better.

“It’s not that we live in a society where polarization is a fact of nature, that politicians have to behave this way because politics is just a zero-sum game,” Chu said. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”

A version of this story was originally published in YELLO, a newsletter about politics, art, design and marketing.