Don’t Believe The Hype

Fahrenheit 9/11 may very well be the best political commercial in history. But like most political commercials, even really good ones, Fahrenheit 9/11 is unlikely to change enough voters’ minds to alter the outcome of the election. Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing documentary may turn up the heat for Republicans, but it won’t push many to the boiling point.

To begin with, the film can have an effect only if people see it. Exposure is step one. In a national survey fielded by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for between June 28 and July 1, only 6 percent of 1,000 likely voters said they had seen the film. Another 38 percent said they intended to see it (although they were not asked whether they planned to do so before or after the election). All in all, a majority of respondents (56 percent) said they had neither seen the film nor intended to see it, limiting the likelihood that the movie will seriously impact the election.

More important, Fahrenheit 9/11 seems to be preaching to the converted. Among those who had seen it, 86 percent indicated they already strongly supported Kerry before; 13 percent favored Bush. Eleven percent of Democrats had seen the film, compared with only 5 percent of independents and 2 percent of Republicans.

A separate poll of registered voters fielded July 6-8 by Time reveals similar findings: Of those who had seen the film, 83 percent said they already planned to vote for Kerry, and 80 percent said they feel the country is on the “wrong track” (compared with 46 percent of those who had not seen the film). Only 26 percent said they approve of Bush’s job performance (versus 52 percent of nonviewers), and only 24 percent said they think Bush has done a “good job” handling Iraq (versus 49 percent of nonviewers). For the most part, it seems Fahrenheit 9/11 viewers have already made up their minds.

In the survey, those who said they intended to see Fahrenheit 9/11 were less heavily skewed toward Kerry: 23 percent said they support Bush. Still, 68 percent said they are Kerry fans (5 percent are Nader supporters, and 5 percent are undecided).

Potentially problematic for Bush is that in the poll, 37 percent of independents who had not seen Fahrenheit 9/11 said they intended to bite the up-to-$10.50 bullet, and 17 percent of Republicans planned to do so. Even so, exposure does not guarantee persuasion. And who knows if moderates will endure the endless queues of flaming liberals at theaters across the country. Even if they do, the overall audience for Fahrenheit 9/11—actual and anticipated—will remain decidedly Democratic and pro-Kerry.

The bigger problem for Bush may be that 35 percent of those who had seen the film—and 41 percent of those who expected to—live in battleground states, where a few votes can make a big difference. But in an election as close as this year’s, one can be tempted—easily and possibly erroneously—to attribute an overly deterministic effect to any singular cause.

On the bright side for Bush, one-third of those who had seen the film, and one-fifth of those who expected to see it, are between the ages of 18 and 29, a group with historically low voter-turnout levels.

Unlike advertising, which can be targeted to desired viewers, the Fahrenheit 9/11 audience is self-selected. Viewers have a point of view going in, and they are unlikely to change their minds coming out. People generally resist messages that are discordant with their pre-existing dispositions. Those who hate Bush will hate him more strongly; those who like Bush will dismiss the movie as liberal propaganda. The film may help sway some undecided voters, but as most polls reveal, there aren’t very many undecided voters to speak of in this election cycle.

Moreover, any impact that Fahrenheit 9/11 may have is likely to wane by November, as the race heats up and new information and events overshadow the hoopla of the film.

Finally, while Fahrenheit 9/11 beats up on Bush, it doesn’t necessarily encourage people to vote for Kerry. Like most negative advertising, Fahrenheit 9/11 may simply discourage people from voting altogether.

All in all, Fahrenheit 9/11 will rile liberals and repulse conservatives, but it will not, by itself, determine the outcome of the 2004 presidential election. Unlike the 2000 election, 2004 is likely to be decided by slightly more than a handful (literally) of Americans. Michael Moore is a talented filmmaker, but he is neither Katherine Harris nor a U.S. Supreme Court justice.