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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Does Emotion Trump Reason in Voter Choice?

Shankar Vedantam’s “In Politics, Aim for the Heart, Not the Head” in today’s WaPo explores a provocative idea for political strategists. Although his proposition is tethered to a 71 year-old experiment in which voters responded twice as positively to a raw, emotional appeal over a rational one, the idea deserves some consideration. Vedantam puts it this way:

Given the enormous proliferation of policy questions today, surfing the emotional wave nowadays may be even more important than it was in 1935. George E. Marcus, president of the International Society of Political Psychology, said modern research confirms that unless political ads evoke emotional responses, they don’t have much effect. Voters, he explained, need to be emotionally primed in some way before they will pay attention.
The research is of importance to politicians for obvious reasons — and partly explains the enduring attraction of negative advertising — but it is also important to voters, because it suggests that the reason candidates seem appealing often has little to do with their ideas. Political campaigns are won and lost at a more emotional and subtle level.

An interesting idea which warrants more long-range exploration. In terms of short-range strategy, Vedantam offers the following:

What works much better, because it influences people at an emotional and subtle level, is to get people to focus on a different issue — the one where the candidate is the strongest.
“The agenda-setting effect is what we are talking about,” said Nicholas A. Valentino, a political psychologist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “The ability of a candidate not to tell people how to feel about an issue, but which issue they should focus on — that is the struggle of most modern campaign managers.”
“Campaigns have been much more successful at shifting people’s attentions to different issues rather than shifting people’s positions,” he added.

Is Vedantam on to something here? Or is this another way of saying people often vote their gut feelings? Either way, the idea merits further study.

4 comments on “Does Emotion Trump Reason in Voter Choice?

  1. kd on

    This is deadpan, right? Please say it is. If “democratic strategists” are just now realizing that appealing to emotion may be more effective than appealing to reason, God help us.

  2. chicago dyke on

    i’m sorry to say it, but i feel like it’s very clear that emotion trumps reason in today’s electorate. how else can you explain the success of election strategies which focus upon such issues as gays and abortion, given how little impact those issues have on the lives of voters who vote based upon them?
    critical thinking isn’t really taught or valued in much of american society today. far too many voters have decided that “godless liberals” are to blame for their economic and social woes, when it’s clear to people who think about those issues based upon the facts that for the most part, republican policies have created the mess the working and middle classes find themselves in today.


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