THE BLOG

From the Gut, Not the Brain

09/14/2012 04:55 pm ET | Updated Nov 14, 2012

Which part of the human body has the most to do with voting preferences in today's world? It seems to keep coming as a surprise to many folks that the brain keeps coming in second to the gut. Perhaps that question needs to be given a bit more thought to be better understood and dealt with.

This brings to mind a factoid from 1984 (not Orwell's book, but that year's presidential election). Reagan had been elected in 1980, having said about Carter, "There he goes again." By 1984 Reagan was already slipping and Mondale tried to mount a serious opposition. But, it turned out that two-thirds of America really liked the amiable, affable Reagan, while two thirds of America clearly preferred Mondale's policies and programs. Go figure.

The answer seems to be that people want someone they like in their "living rooms" for four years, a president who makes them feel good about themselves and their lives.

The analogy from 1984 to today is far from perfect, but it appears, despite some obvious differences, that Romney apparently lacks Reagan's charm and that Obama still makes a lot of people feel proud to have a minority person as president who is honest, decent and obviously very smart.

Who votes and how they go about it tells something about what is going on.

The Harvard Kennedy School of Government fall bulletin has an article by Andrew Coulter, which lays out some interesting information. To begin with, although about 65 percent of eligible voters register, only about 46 percent actually end up voting. People in the voting population over 45 are well over half the vote and people under 25 are about one fifth of the vote. Why people do not vote is fascinating: 27 percent are too busy or had conflicted schedules; 16 percent were not interested; 11percent were sick or unable to get out; 9 percent were out of town; and 8 percent simply forgot!

How far apart voters were between the two main parties on 48 values questions asked over 25 years of polling has increased from 10 percent to 18 percent. Despite that, only half of all voters think another new party might be useful.

To those of us in the reading, writing and chattering class these facts seem downright astonishing. Voting intelligently seems to us to be not only a duty but one of the few ways we can influence the direction of our country. Sadly, it appears many people either seem to think that their vote does not matter or that all alternatives are equally bad and that really, at the end of the day, will not actually or materially affect their lives.

The result is that a significant part of our population either throws up their hands in confusion, having been bombarded from many sources telling them things they either do not understand or believe, or they simply work from their prior beliefs and assumptions in the context of whichever candidate "connects" with them. And, that is where the gut takes over.

Let's face it. With very few exceptions, if you think about presidential elections from the perspective of an average 10-year-old, what you must see are two grown-ups, who mainly look much alike, who make long, boring gobbledygook speeches and who lead your parents to argue with each other and their friends. But, you also get into the idea that there is a tug of war going on and perhaps you'd better pick a team to root for. So whom do you choose? Guess what? The handsomest; the one most like your dad or mom; the one who likes your favorite sport.

I am not at all suggesting that the average adult American is stuck at age 10. But, when they filter out all the compelling, but complicated, economic and foreign issues that do not figure prominently in most people's daily lives, many adult Americans who feel any patriotic duty to vote kind of shrug and think like a kid. They go with the candidate with whom they feel a "connection."

So, these interminable campaigns we endure have a purpose: they are designed for candidates to make that connection with as many people as possible along any number of lines -- special interests, favors, regional interests, religion, sports, prejudices, popular/unpopular ideas, rich vs. poor, educated vs. less educated, etc.

Translating this subject into today's election, it seems that even though the obvious big questions are the direction of the world and the economy, there has been an amazing amount of noise about many secondary and tertiary issues. Thus perhaps this year's choice may be surrounded by more than a normal amount of confusion for many prospective voters. Hence, one conclusion that comes to mind is "more confusion tends to lead to more gut reaction."

Perhaps one modern problem is that our election cycles are too long and too frequent. Maybe it is time to rethink how we prepare our voters to make the critical choices in their lives that they frequently shrug off, ignore or just decide on a whim.

We have another presidential election in 2016. Perhaps one of the reasons the Republicans and Romney are so powerfully keen to win this year is that they know deep down, no matter who wins this year, 2016 will be a tough year for the out party to win because by then the economy is likely to be much better than it is now.

All the more reason to get brains back in the process.