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.