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It’s hardly surprising when an incumbent uses political advertising to raise his or her reelection prospects. But here’s what is surprising: a claim that advertising in elevators delivered this lift. And yet that’s exactly how North Carolina Commissioner of Labor Cherie Berry may have brought her electoral prospects to new heights.

Berry’s the commissioner of North Carolina’s Department of Labor, which oversees the Elevator and Amusement Device Bureau. The Bureau conducts semiannual inspections of the state’s elevators, escalators and so forth. Berry was first elected labor commissioner in 2000; she won reelection in 2004. And in 2005 she put in place a rule that every elevator in the state must include placards adorned with her — or rather, the labor commissioner’s — picture.

A typical elevator placard in North Carolina (photo by sunfishtommy, Creative Commons license)
A typical elevator placard in North Carolina (Photo by sunfishtommy, Creative Commons license)

Do Berry’s elevator pictures count as free political advertising?

Those elevator pictures have made Berry a niche celebrity in North Carolina. She’s had several songs written about her. There’s a parody Twitter account with the handle @ElevatorQueen. Berry has reveled in her fame. In fact, her 2012 reelection campaign included a television advertisement in which her elevator picture did the narration.

In an article in the May edition of the journal American Politics Research, my co-author Neil Weinberg and I tested the idea that these picture-adorned placards are a novel form of political advertising and have enabled Berry to ride the ups and downs of electoral politics. Other incumbents have advertised in similar ways — for instance, putting their names on state driver licenses. But Berry’s example includes publicly available data.

Political scientist David Mayhew’s famously defined political advertising as “any effort to disseminate one’s name among constituents in such a fashion as to create a favorable image but in messages having little or no issue content.” If Berry’s pictures fall in this category, improving her name recognition and bringing in more votes, she should get the biggest lift in counties with the highest concentration of elevators.


Map of number of elevators per 1,000 people by North Carolina county in 2012
Note: Number of counties per quantile in parentheses; quantiles by # elevators/1,000 people; fig. made in GeoDa™.

If so, her votes in these counties should be going up

Berry is a conservative Republican from rural Catawba County who has advocated abolishing the minimum wage. You would expect her vote totals to go down in urban counties like Wake (which contains Raleigh) and Mecklenburg (which includes Charlotte), as well as counties with large universities, like Orange (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and Watauga (Appalachian State) — unless the elevator pictures were to bring her totals up.


North Carolina map of 2012 average GOP votes by county
Note: Number of counties per quantile in parentheses; quantiles by pct. of avg. GOP vote; fig. made in GeoDa™.

Here’s how we tested this and what we found. We used statistical models to compare Berry’s performance at the county level in 2008 and 2012 (the two elections after the installation of the pictures on elevator inspection placards) to her own previous vote percentages, as well as to the average county-level percentage received by other Republicans running for comparable statewide offices, part of the North Carolina Council of State.

And sure enough, elevators brought up Berry’s election results.

2008 results. In 2008, Berry’s net change in vote percentage from her own previous tallies is positively associated with the number of elevators per 1,000 people in a given county.

In other words, Berry’s performance went up most in those counties with a high concentration of elevators.

However, we found that the concentration of elevators in a given county did not predict Berry’s performance compared to other Republicans running for state office in 2008. We use the analogy of a runner who is in the midst of training to reconcile these apparently contradictory results. That runner might improve on her own previous performances, but still not beat the rest of the field.

 


Map of Cherie Berry’s 2012 deviation from the average GOP vote by county
Note: Number of counties per quantile in parentheses; quantiles by Berry’s 2012 deviation from average GOP vote; fig. made in GeoDa™.

2012 results. These results aren’t as ambiguous. Once again, Berry brought up her total of the vote in counties with a higher concentration of elevators. But this time, Berry performs better than other Republicans running for statewide offices in counties with a higher concentration of elevators per 1,000 people.

What should we take away from this study?

As political scientists have long thought, political advertisements can affect elections — even in the most unorthodox forms. With this kind of advertising, incumbents don’t have to spend campaign funds — but they still come out of the election at a higher floor than when they began.

If they do learn from Berry’s elevator pictures, they may realize that such advertising can help when they try to rise to higher political office. In a May 2013 poll, Berry performed strongest of all Republicans tested against then-Senator Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) for the U.S. Senate seat Hagan was vacating in 2014. While Berry didn’t run for Senate, her picture in North Carolina elevators continue to bring up her political prospects as she seeks a fifth term as labor commissioner in 2016.

Jacob Smith is a PhD candidate at UNC in Chapel Hill where he studies Congress, elections and public policy.