ATLANTA, Georgia — On the eve of election day in Georgia's contentious governor's race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp, voters on both sides of the aisle came together to agree on one thing: the ads were pretty wild this year.
The night before the polls opened for the 2018 midterms, Republican and Democratic voters in an Atlanta focus group spoke in generally positive terms about an Abrams ad showing her family life, describing her with words like "faith," "family," and "tradition."
But they broke along party lines to argue about a Brian Kemp ad that played on similar themes.
The responses appeared to demonstrate how a viewer’s sense of the authenticity of candidates determines the success of their ads. The group was convened by conservative pollster Frank Luntz, who has led four focus groups in all with VICE News during the lead-up to the midterms. The group of twenty voters — ten Abrams supporters and ten Kemp supporters — said that an ad featuring Abrams hosting a large family dinner at her house conveyed a sense of humanity and tradition.
Luntz pointed out how unusual it is for conservatives to give a Democratic challenger like Abrams such a high score, which panelists said was due to her inherent likeability in the family-oriented Southern state.
“She's talking about faith. She's talking about family. It's everything that I think Georgia is about,” said Joan Bruce, 56, a self-described moderate conservative who voted from Trump in 2016 and who supports Kemp for governor.
“Southern values, it portrays that,” added Austin Weisheipl, 23, who also is conservative and supports Kemp. “But at the end of the day, I don't think she'll actually do what she says. I don't like her policy.”
While Republican voters may not agree with Abrams’s progressive plank, the ad scored well among all of the panelists, drawing a 47-percent approval rating from Democratic panelists and a 42-percent rating from GOP panelists.
In contrast, an ad by Brian Kemp drew about a four-and-a-half percent approval from Democrats and only 47 percent from Republicans.
In the ad, Kemp sits at a chair in what appears to be his home, quizzing a young man named “Jake,” who Kemp says is “interested in one of my daughters.” Kemp is holding a shotgun in his hands as Jake rattles off Kemp’s policy priorities, including capping spending and dismantling regulations. When Kemp asks for two things Jake will need to know if he’s going to date Kemp’s daughter, Jake replies “Respect, and a healthy appreciation for the second amendment.”
“We’re going get along just fine,” Kemp says, as he clicks the barrel of his gun into place.
“I am a gun owner, and have used guns my entire life. And you do not ever have a shotgun pointed, especially at a child,” said Tamara Stevens, 48, a progressive voter who supports Abrams.
Stevens says she's the co-founder of a women in politics group that meets regularly with state officials, and told the panel she found Kemp's ad to be disingenuous for another reason.
“He throws in that deep Southern drawl,” Stevens added. “I know Brian Kemp. I can call him on my cell phone right now. He is — does not have that deep Southern drawl.”
“Democrats need to lighten up,” replied Steve Pope, 32, a moderate conservative and Brian Kemp supporter. “He made a joke that's like a common Southern thing that's in every Western. That a man's gonna protect his daughter from the boyfriend that potentially could be a bad boyfriend.”
This segment originally aired November 5, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.
UPDATE, June 1, 2021: VICE News produced a series of seven panels moderated by Frank Luntz from December 2017 to January 2019. Recently, it was reported that Luntz was on Ted Cruz’s reelection campaign payroll in 2018. VICE News was unaware of this affiliation, and Luntz did not disclose this information at the time of these productions.