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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Drew Westen: Dems Must ‘Go for the Gut” to Do Well in Midterms

Drew Westen explains “How Democrats can persuade voters to turn out at the polls” in an August 15th column at CNN Opinion:

How do you weigh a carton of eggs against a carton of freedoms? Both are on the ballot this November, and how Americans vote will be as much a function of psychology as politics.

That’s because our conscious mind is a limited tool for decision-making, in large part because it has limited “space.” Try remembering nine items you need at the store: Voters can’t possibly keep in mind every issue they care about as they cast their ballots for multiple candidates and propositions.

And how do you weigh what you feel every time you reach for a gallon of milk against what you feel about the Supreme Court’s controversial decision to overturn Roe v. Wade after a half-century, or how safe you feel sending your kids back to school this month?

As in most decision-making, much of what drives us is unconscious and emotional. Voters form associations between what they feel and what is happening around them. They “calculate” the costs and benefits of what matters to them — their interests and values — largely outside of their awareness, often in the form of “gut feelings” toward a candidate or party.

Westen, author of “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation” and Emory University professor of psychology and psychiatry, adds that, despite Biden’s achievements “the sum of policies with approval numbers in the 60s or 70s, yields presidential ratings in the 30s. Why? Because voters aren’t consciously weighing the costs and benefits of Biden. They are associating him with the skyrocketing cost of living….Perhaps July’s downtick in inflation and the drop in gas prices will register before the midterm elections, or perhaps not. Associations change much more slowly than conscious beliefs.”

Westen warns, further, if Democrats “offer voters a laundry list of accomplishments rather than an emotionally compelling story about where the two parties plan to take the country, Republicans will take them to the cleaners in the House of Representatives, where the Democratic majority is razor thin, and in statewide races.” In addition,

Democrats can use their accomplishments to blunt voters’ economic anxiety and begin to restore hope — two of the most important emotions that drive voting. Aside from its popular provisions, the Inflation Reduction Act — if Democrats can restrain themselves from calling it “the reconciliation bill,” or a resorting to a “catchy” acronym like “IRA22” — is an emotionally evocative name that connects the dots to voters’ primary source of anxiety.

It also allows Democrats to put their opponents on the defensive by simply asking, “So why are you against reducing inflation? Most of the people we represent are pretty concerned about it.”

Westen argues that Democrats must “retain the emotional intensity” that energized the Kansas vote on abortion rights and turn up the heat on election deniers and Trump worshippers, because voters’ “polarized feelings about Trump will undoubtedly enter voters’ unconscious calculus as well.”

Westen concludes that “Voters can’t consciously report what they are unconsciously thinking and feeling. But if Democrats want to break the historical curse of first-term presidents in the midterms and the equally powerful curse of inflation, they will need to go for the gut.”

One comment on “Drew Westen: Dems Must ‘Go for the Gut” to Do Well in Midterms

  1. Martin Lawford on

    If the cause of the inflation is supply chain disruption and the war in Ukraine, as Prof. Westen argues, then how does raising business taxes and spending more on health care and renewable energy reduce inflation? It doesn’t. This is why the Congressional Budget Office predicts that the Act’s effect on inflation will be negligible at best. Its tax and spend provisions may be good for the country, but it will not reduce inflation. I do not know what Prof. Westen expects the voters to do when they notice that the Inflation Reduction Act has not reduced inflation, but I expect them to go to the polls and kick our asses.


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