Monday, November 17, 2008

Who Won The Heartstring Vote And Why It Matters

Democrats are still basking in the glow of this month’s historic presidential election. As such, it is easy to forget that for the first half of this decade, Democrats were popularly perceived as the party that squandered opportunities to win office. The Republican Party won the presidency in 2000 (Florida debacle notwithstanding) despite the fact that the incumbent party had presided over the greatest economic expansion in American history. And despite the fact that Democrats were still bitter about 2000 in 2004 and that voters were increasingly skeptical of the war in Iraq, George W. Bush managed to win reelection in 2004. How does one party blow electoral chances like that, when the other manages to win improbable elections? Very simple. The GOP tugged at voters’ heartstrings while the Democrats bored them with statistics and logic.

Even though Democratic pollsters saw substantive advantages for their party, the Democratic candidates were unable to frame their issues in passionately communicable terms. Clinical psychologist Drew Westen, who used MRI technology to examine voters, found that emotion trumps reason in the political decision-making process. Based on this theory, it is no wonder that the Republican Party in all their emotional glory have dominated presidential elections during the modern presidency. The implications of this finding are not only retrospective, though, but rather prospective in their ability to guide the Democratic Party to future success. According to Westen, Democrats subscribed to a “trickle up” theory of politics in which that same middle-class West Virginia would have voted for issues directly important to him over ones framed to seem devastatingly crucial to his existence. In other words, Democrats were punished for thinking rationally.

Westen’s MRI testing of the human brain found that political advertisements activated the emotional parts of the brain, not the rational ones. Candidates who can tap into this natural network of emotions have the upper hand, regardless of issue positions. Therefore, voters support candidates that share their values and are empathetic. What has influenced these voters the least? The issues. And even when the issues creep into the forefront of the voters’ mind, they are usually muddled by the perceptions candidates create for them.

For political campaigns, it is most important to concentrate on making their candidate relatable to regular voters. More crucial than perfecting issue positions is creating an acceptable personal narrative around the candidate that will make it easier for voters to accept their policy positions by association. For example, Bill Clinton showcased his biography in a commercial about his upbringing in Hope, Arkansas. Besides for the conveniently named town, the hope portrayed in the advertisement about the future and about our ability to come together as on community appealed to voter’s emotions. Voters were able to trust Clinton to make strong decisions on policy not only because he logically portrayed his views, but also because he created a uniform narrative that showed voters the roots of his existence. In doing this, he combined his personal background with the values that are naturally and emotionally important to voters to prove his empathy for the human condition. This connection lent credence to his ability and trust as a policymaker.

While Bill Clinton seemed to effectively relate himself to the public, other Democrats have not been quite as successful. Republicans have had the upper hand on the emotional front by framing themselves and their issues as those of average Americans. In both 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush portrayed himself as an average guy from Texas instead of the Yale educated, Connecticut blueblood that he also is. Specifically in 2000, Bush conveyed himself as a responsible official who could get things done. While the public saw emotional decisiveness from Bush in debates, they only heard Gore’s logical perspective. Furthermore, in 2004, Bush, the man who avoided going to Vietnam by enlisting in the Texas National Guard, undermined veteran John Kerry’s war credentials. While his service in Vietnam should have been a central point in his emotional narrative, Kerry instead allowed Bush to define his involvement in the war. Instead of appearing as a war hero with national security credentials, Kerry was portrayed as a dishonest, disloyal war protester for arguing against the war upon his return from Vietnam. Thus, framing the candidate in ways that may seem illogical to a rational voter, are completely acceptable to more common passionate voters.

In this 2008 election, the Democratic Party was in prime position to replicate the electoral success strategy of Bill Clinton due to the terribly unpopular incumbent. Democratic President-elect Barack Obama made use of similar emotional themes in his campaign for the presidency. From the beginning, the challenge for Obama was not making himself seem relatable, but rather preventing himself from seeming out of touch. Obama started his campaign as not relatable to a vast majority of the country due to the color of his skin and the foreignness of his name. As if that were not enough, his Ivy League education made him seem even more different from the average voter. While his opponents leveled attacks against him claiming he was elitist, Obama did a superb job of deflecting these attacks in favor of a more relatable personal definition. Instead of allowing these to be disadvantages, he neutralized them by using them in emotional terms. His foreign name and skin color became opportunities for Americans to reaffirm the American dream and the notion that anything is possible in America. These principles, coupled with the hope and unity necessary to achieve them, were enough to make Obama relatable to any American regardless of descriptive characteristics.

The issue of race actually ended up favoring Obama due to his campaign’s creation of a continuous narrative that insisted upon post-racial politics and change. In Iowa, a state with a disproportionate amount of white voters, the Obama campaign created an advertisement of him and his family sitting next to a Christmas tree espousing family values by having their children wish the audience Happy Holidays. This type of campaigning, framing the otherwise different candidate’s family to seem just like any other family, thrust Obama to victory in Iowa and nationally. Furthermore, Obama tugged at heartstrings with his emotional infomercial that appealed to responsibility and family. While Obama clearly indicates that government cannot raise families’ children, it can make the journey easier on parents. Thus, he used the emotional appeals of personal responsibility and family in order to portray himself as the candidate most in touch with mainstream America.

In the end, Obama was able to institute Westen’s findings in his campaign by creating an emotional narrative that framed him as more similar to average Americans than most initially perceived. Instead of allowing the “trickle up” theory to run their strategy, Democrats finally accepted the fact that firm logic could not compensate for the natural emotion engrained in all human beings. This time around, the Democratic Party asked voters as their equals in this evolutionary journey to trust them with their futures. And it worked.

For Further Reading:

Drew Westen. 2007. The Political Brain. New York: Public Affairs.

Friday, November 7, 2008

And the Winner Is...

The election cycle has been full of surprises. Both parties produced nominees that came from positions of relative instability and low funding to frontrunner status through a series of Primary upsets. Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, and Joe the Plumber have risen from unknowns to household names. Pollsters have chewed through their fingernails, hoping to get it right this time. In light of the turbulence of the campaign, the election passed with a decisive ease unseen in recent times. It almost felt like there was a collective sense of wonder and amazement: in the context of recent electoral cliffhangers, the political Super Bowl was over by eleven pm Eastern time without any questions as to the validity of the results. National exit polls allow for an investigation of what worked, with whom, and how. Prior to the election, there were a lot of questions about whether Barack Obama would be able to overcome the demographic fragmentation of the Democratic primaries. Did region, race, age, and religion play an impact in the results? Last week we examined the Bradley effect, which had impacted a number of campaigns in previous history. Did the numbers suggest any suspicious deviations in the behavior of undecided voters? And what issues were most important to the electorate before pulling the lever? In the brief pause between now and January 20th, we have time to reflect on and digest the historic implications of this election.

The news cycle was buzzing before November 4: Obama had a substantial projected lead in the polls in a majority of states and the popular vote. But questions loomed about the daunting objectives of his campaign agenda: break into Bush states, perform with demographics that had favored Hillary Clinton, organize historically reliable unmotivated voters, and gain ground with religious voters who are typically skeptical of Democrats. Obama’s focus had always been to run a national campaign, and this was realized in great part by tremendous organization and resources, as well as the fiercely contested Democratic contest.

Regionally, there were a few surprises. McCain’s advantage came in the typical Republican strongholds: the South and the West. However, Obama managed to flip Florida, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia. Indiana and Virginia had not cast electoral votes for a Democratic candidate since 1964. Obama also achieved high margins among minority voters, garnering 95% of the black vote nationally and 67% of the Hispanic vote. John Kerry was only supported by 88% of black voters, and 53% of Hispanics nationally in 2004. Although John McCain won 55% of white voters, Obama outperformed Kerry among whites by 2 percentage points.

Turnout increased around the board, but it’s also important to note the changes in the distribution of the electorate. Obama’s strength came from a coalition of enthusiastic supporters from a number of constituencies, including younger voters. African Americans, Hispanics, and voters ages 18-29 each made up a slightly larger portion of voters than in previous years. Obama won commanding margins with all three groups. John McCain captured a majority of the white vote, and held on to voters over the age of 65. However, the percentage of the electorate in both these groups is smaller than 2004.

Obama also won larger margins with religious voters, Catholics and Jews both granting Obama majorities, as well as 45% of Protestants. Obama won 24% of the white Evangelical Christian vote, three percentage points higher than John Kerry’s 21%, but a huge loss to McCain’s 74% of the group. It must be noted, though, that Obama’s gains among Evangelicals came particularly from young Evangelicals aged 18-29.

Examining late-deciders indicates no impact of a Bradley effect among the demographic, those voters splitting evenly between candidates. As much fun as it was “picturing yourself as a racist” last week, it seems that voters are becoming more comfortable discussing their preferences with pollsters.

National exit polling paints the picture of a very concerned electorate. At least sixty percent of voters said “yes,” when asked if they were concerned about the following issues: another terrorist attack, health care, offshore drilling, and Supreme Court appointments. An additional 63% of Americans expressed disagreement about the direction of the war in Iraq. These trends are in line with other polling of the American public, considering that only 11% of Americans surveyed by Gallup at the beginning of November felt the country was on the right track. However, the most overwhelming anxiety was about the economy. The national exit poll indicates that 85% of American voters nationally expressed some concern about the economy going into the voting booth, and 54% of those concerned Americans cast a ballot for Barack Obama. Nationally, 63% of Americans said that the economy was the most important issue going into the race. The other issues on the list—Iraq, terrorism, health care, and energy—did not reach ten percent. Concern about the economy was practically universal, the difference being who voters thought best suited to address the situation. Even in states where McCain had commanding margins of victory, a plurality of voters indicated the economy was the most important issue, significantly higher than other issues listed, and the majority supported McCain. Overall, the candidate that won the state did so by winning on the economy.

So we have the numbers now. How did Obama win? It seems like a simple concept: get more votes than the other candidate. But the contributing factors are so much more complicated. McCain’s weaker margins in the west are largely attributable to the organizational efforts of the Democratic primary. Both campaigns registered a significant number of new Democrats, and Obama’s organization in the western caucuses translated into monster field offices for the general election. Obama’s targeted emphasis on early voting, through the bombarding supporters with text messages, e-mails, and carrier pigeons emphasizing important deadlines also proved beneficial. Republicans tend to vote early in elections, whereas Democrats tend to wait a little longer. This year, the early vote was split pretty evenly on the national scale, but provided Obama a critical advantage in Nevada, and due in great part to the focus of the Obama campaign. Obama also owes a debt to the increased turnout and distribution of support from African Americans, Hispanics, and younger voters. Although these demographics benefitted Obama across the board, Hispanic voters in particular aided Obama in the conversion of Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. Obama benefitted by securing a higher percentage of growing demographics, a trend to watch in subsequent elections. Should these demographic shifts hold, it could prove very dangerous for Republicans, whose appeal may be confined to a shrinking segment of the electorate.

Obama managed victory in Virginia due to demographic shifts in the Northern and Southeastern parts of the state that have been emerging more and more in recent years, contributing to the victories of Virginia Democrats such as Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, and Jim Webb. However, the stagnant economy that has forced Kaine’s recent spending freeze couldn’t hurt.

Obama benefitted across the board from the anxiety of the American voter. Research has indicated that anxious voters are most likely to defect from their party in elections. The Republican brand is also highly damaged by the economic downturn. The foreclosure crisis, rise in the cost of food, gas, and college tuition, rampant job loss, and stock market volatility have all occurred under a Republican president after a period of economic prosperity under a Democratic president. A majority of the battleground states have experienced different downsides of the economic downturn, from Florida’s depreciating property values to startling job losses in Ohio. Obama won by selling the economy.

The most important rule of political campaigns is to define yourself before your opponent defines you. Each campaign offered different appeals to the electorate (we’ll discuss this more next week). The main points of Obama’s campaign were that Barack Obama was a qualified and cool-headed leader, and that John McCain was out of touch with the common man. The main points of McCain’s narrative were that Obama lacked the leadership capabilities for this uncertain time, and Obama’s plan would cause a strain on American businesses. Through exit polling, we find that 50% of Americans felt that Barack Obama had the leadership capabilities to be president, and 60% of voters felt that John McCain was out of touch with voters like them. Of those who felt that Barack Obama had the proper leadership experience for this time, 93% gave him their vote. Of those who felt McCain was out of touch with people like them, 79% voted for Barack Obama. Of the 71% of Americans who felt that their taxes would increase under Barack Obama, only 55% voted for John McCain. Although the prevalence of notions from both narratives was high, Obama established the more effective appeal on the most important issue to voters before the election. What he does with that victory remains subject to speculation on both sides of the aisle.

For Further Reading:

Drew Westen. 2007. The Political Brain. New York: Public Affairs.

The Exit Polls

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Bradley Effect: What It Is and Why You Don’t Have to Worry About It Anymore

Imagine that you are a white citizen, voting in an election where a black candidate and a white candidate are running against each other. You are very racist and believe that black people make terrible leaders, so you decide to cast your vote for the white candidate, regardless of his/her positions. Imagine that a pollster asks who you plan to vote for. Even though you are racist, you don’t live under a rock, so you know that in the post-Civil Rights Era, being openly racist is socially unacceptable. Would you tell the pollster which candidate you plan to vote for?

Now imagine you aren’t racist at all, but you’re casting your vote for the white candidate because you support his/her positions. Yet when the pollster shows up, you fear that if you say that you’re voting for the white candidate, you’ll appear racist. What would you tell the pollster?

You might, regardless of truth, report that you support the black candidate in an attempt to conform to socially acceptable ideas.

Scholars and pundits call this phenomenon the “Bradley effect.” Historically, black candidates for office have polled significantly higher numbers than actual votes. The Bradley effect has a variety of possible explanations, but is usually attributed to the situation described above. White voters have misreported their votes in elections involving black and white candidates. They have overstated their support for black candidates because of the social desirability of seeming racially open-minded. Therefore, black candidates that have had huge percentage point leads in polls have still lost elections or won by very small margins.

The Bradley effect was named after Tom Bradley, the Los Angeles mayor who ran for Governor of California in 1982. Polls showed that Bradley had as much as an eighteen point lead prior to the election, yet he wound up losing. Similarly, Doug Wilder, a 1989 Virginia gubernatorial candidate, had double-digit lead in the polls, and won by only .2 percent. The Bradley effect was consistent in elections involving black candidates from the 1980s through the mid-1990s.

There is renewed interest in the effect with the possible election of America’s first African American president coming up in less than a week. News shows and political pundits, including those at CNN, ABC News, and RealClearPolitics, continue to argue over whether or not the Bradley effect will be present, especially in light of Barack Obama’s surge in the polls in the past month.

CNN discusses the Bradley effect:

CBS’ Web Exclusive on the Bradley Effect:

Even Al-Jazeera [English] picks up the story:

Yet the occurrence of a Bradley effect seems unlikely since it has not been found since the late 1990’s. In fact, some even talk about a reverse Bradley effect, because Obama outperformed expectations in many primaries. There are many reasons in general to why a Bradley effect may be less relevant today Daniel Hopkins, for instance, speculated that the racialized issues of welfare and crime have since decreased in salience. However, racism has not disappeared along with the issues.

A more likely explanation is the influx of younger voters, who tend to be more racially tolerant than their elders. As time goes on, those who were born after the Civil Rights Era become bigger parts of the electorate.

Another explanation may be that the Bradley effect may be embedded in the reports of undecided voters. Some of these voters may have actually made up their minds but are reluctant to voice their preference. These undecided voters may not be reporting their support for the white candidates for the same reason that voters in the past voiced false support for the black ones.

Political commentators are speculating about Obama’s numbers because of effects they found in the Democratic primaries. Some say that Hillary Clinton’s win in New Hampshire was an indicator of the Bradley effect, but in actuality there were many other factors contributing to Obama loss in this state, including some sampling problems with public polls and the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s emotional display the weekend before the primary.

Since it has not been truly seen for a decade, it is unlikely that the Bradley effect will impact the election come Tuesday. The only big concern should be the undecided voters, who are mainly whites. These whites may in fact be McCain supporters appealing to social desirability. This remains to be seen. Obama himself seems unconcerned with the idea. We'll just have to wait for Tuesday night to see who is right.

For Further Reading:

Chris Cillizza. 2008. “Race, Polling and the ‘Bradley Effect.” June 10, 2008.

Michael W. Traugott and Vincent Price. 1992. “Exit Pollsin the 1989 Virginia Gubernatorial Race: Where Did They Go Wrong?” Public Opinion Quarterly. 56(2): 245-253.

Daniel Hopkins. 2008. “No More Wilder Effect, Never a Whitman Effect: When and Why Polls Mislead About Black and Female Candidates.” Paper presented at the 2008 Meeting of the Society for Political Methodology.

John Heilemann. 2008. “The Color-Coded Campaign.” New York Magazine. August 18, 2008. 18-21.