Have the Swift Boat Ads Hurt Kerry’s Image?

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume," Aug. 23, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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BRIT HUME, HOST: It is an axiom of politics and public relations that you don't feed a bad story. And if there ever was a bad story, the Swift Boat Veterans' accusations against John Kerry (search) are it for his campaign. But Kerry, in speaking out and thereby feeding the story, may have known something the rest of us didn't. It didn't show up in the latest campaign polls, but there is evidence that those ads are a threat to Kerry's campaign.

To explain why, we turn to Glenn Kessler whose firm, HCD Research working with Muhlenberg College (search) has done an on-line survey of voters reaction to the Swift Boat Veterans' ad. He joins us from our New York newsroom.

Mr. Kessler, welcome. Tell me if you can something about the methodology that you used to conduct this survey of the ads and the reaction to it.

GLENN KESSLER, HCD RESEARCH: Well, first, I'm glad you called it a survey. What we do is survey potential voters on their perceptions of ads. And since April, we have been sending out broadcasts to selected voters around the United States.

HUME: How many?

KESSLER: We've been going out to about 15 to 20,000 per week, and we get around 1,000 to 1,500 responses per week. We send them email with a password. They're able to go on-line once and participate in the survey. And we then ask them a number of demographic questions. After completing the demographic questions, they then use an old technology called automated response systems. You may be aware of how in test theaters; commercials are tested using a dual...

HUME: Right.

KESSLER: You turn it clockwise for high interest, counterclockwise for low interest. We do the same thing on the Internet. We use a bar, a mouse. And there's a continuum.

HUME: So they can move back and forth. They move the mouse to signify approval, gathering interest, disapproval, diminishing interest.

KESSLER: That's correct.

HUME: That kind of thing. This then comes in through the Internet to your headquarters and is compiled. Correct?

KESSLER: That's correct.

HUME: So they actually see the ad on their screen by virtue of the package you've sent them, and respond to it, and you receive this information?

KESSLER: That's correct. And then we develop means for each half- second of response. So we can look at, as we did in the last week, we look at 835 Independents. And we were able to determine the mean for each half second that they watched the ads their levels of interest and believability.

HUME: Now, I think it's fair to say that your survey showed that Republicans liked and responded to the Swift Boat Veterans' ads and Democrats didn't. But we're looking now at numbers on the screen I believe that apply to the Independents, the blue line and red line blow it.

KESSLER: That's correct.

HUME: What do those lines signify?

KESSLER: One of those...

HUME: First Swift Boat Veterans ad, right?

KESSLER: That's correct.

HUME: OK. What does that show?

KESSLER: What you are looking at here are the levels of interest and believability. And you see a slight incline as the ad goes on, with somewhat increasing levels of interest and believability among Independents. And so...

HUME: You have done a lot of surveys of a lot of ads. If you are trying to pitch to Independents, what would you say about this reaction?

KESSLER: Well, it suggests that the claims in the ad brought increasing levels of interest in believability. So it's suggested there aren't any tremendous peaks or valleys. But you see some trends in increase, in believability and in interest.

So I would say we've seen in things where you have high interest and high believability for products. That's a winner. Where there's high believability and low interest, that's a loser. Where there's low interest and high believability, it's in product advertising; you are looking for high interest and high believability.

HUME: How would you characterize this?

KESSLER: This one was moderate levels of interest and moderate levels of believability. But when we look at the numbers, it really resonated with some individuals who before looking at the ad were considering voting or leaning towards Kerry. 27 percent of them lost a level of support.

HUME: We got something on our screen now that shows this was. Before the ad we had 42 percent leaning toward voting for Kerry. After the ad, it came to 29 percent.

KESSLER: That's correct.

HUME: And so you had a decline. Measurable decline, would you say, in support for Kerry?

KESSLER: Yes. The first Swift Boat ad definitely had an impact.

HUME: All right.

KESSLER: And what we saw was the level of support declining among 27 percent of the individuals, who before seeing the ad indicated that they were leaning towards Kerry.

HUME: I got you.

KESSLER: So the level of support declined somewhat.

HUME: All right. Now, let me ask you about subsequent ads. The Kerry camp has weighed in with an ad of it's own. The Swift Boat Veterans have now come back with a second ad of their own, in which they're focused on the things that Kerry said about Vietnam War after he returned. They're angry, as you know, about the testimony he gave April 1971 in Congress. What did you find about the Kerry ad and the second Swift Boat Veterans ad?

KESSLER: Well, the Kerry ad basically had very little impact. The second Swift Boat ad was also flat. There are a number of reasons why this would be. But one salient thing that we noticed. And that was Independents who had seen the first Swift Boat ad and then saw the second one, in the test were less supportive of Bush. We saw that...

HUME: Got you.

KESSLER: ... those that had seen the second one...

HUME: So it flat lined and even may have hurt Bush a little.

KESSLER: A little bit.

HUME: All right. Mr. Kessler, thank you very much. We appreciate you coming in.

KESSLER: Thank you so much.

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