THE BLOG

High Anxiety, Low Information, Moderate Expectations: The Importance of Voter Psychographics in Elections

10/31/2012 11:14 am ET | Updated Dec 31, 2012

Frequently, citizens' votes have more to do with who they are as opposed to who the candidates are or what their ads say. That's why when it comes to winning elections in close races understanding psychographics trumps demographics.

Voters can be classified into three broad psychographic categories: High Anxiety, Low Information and Moderate Expectations. Political campaigns typically do a good job of connecting with the first two categories and a relatively poor job with the "moderates". Let's examine the reasons for this.

High anxiety voters are the "true believers" in either party or for either candidate. They bleed true blue or true red. They live or die by their candidate's defeat or victory. It is virtually impossible for them to understand how someone could support the other side. They are easy to reach and mobilize.

Low information voters are of two types. On the one hand, they are many of the high anxiety voters who only consume intake from the right or left. Their information comes from one channel -- Fox or MSNBC depending on their political predisposition. On the other hand, they are almost completely disinterested voters who either use a party label; the candidate's race, religion or some other characteristic; a single "wedge" issue; or, some idiosyncratic or personal preference to make their voting decision. They are "narrow band" and easy to reach as well.

Voters of moderate expectations, in contrast, cover a wide spectrum. They don't see government as the root of all evil or the solution to all problems. They are frequently maligned as being disinterested or as low information voters. The truth is that unlike the high anxiety voters they are not consumed by politics and unlike many of the low information voters they are not indifferent to varied input. They weigh and balance the alternatives. They do their homework, put things to the reasonableness test, and decide who will get their votes.

Columnists David Brooks and Ross Douthat focused on moderate and undecided voters in recent articles. Brooks devoted an entire column providing his description and delineation of the "moderate". One of the points he makes is that "Just as the moderate suspects imbalance in the country, so she suspects it in herself. She distrusts passionate intensity and bold simplicity and admires self-restraint, intellectual openness, and equipoise."

Douthat admits that "many undecided voters do tend to be ill-informed bandwagon jumpers with little coherence or consistency to their worldview." But, he argues that there are also high information voters "with views somewhere near the American median (who) might still regard this November's decision as a harder-than-average call." Those are the voters that we and Brooks refer to as moderates.

In 2011, based upon its research, the Pew Research Center developed a new political typology of registered voters which is a blend of demographics and psychographics. That typology is presented in the table below:

Party Affiliation/Typology Categories/ Percentage of Registered Voters

Mostly Republican
- Staunch Conservatives (highly engaged tea party supporters) 11%
- Main Street Republicans (conservative on most issues) 14%
Mostly Independent-
Libertarians (free market, small government seculars) 10%
- Disaffected (downscale and cynical) 11%
- Post-Moderns (moderates, but liberal on social issues) 14%
Mostly Democratic
- New Coalition (upbeat - equal number majority-minority) 9%
- Hard Pressed (religious, conservative, financially struggling) 15%
- Solid Liberals (Across the board liberal positions) 16%

As we look at the distribution of registered voters in this table, two things jump out: (1) Even though they are classified as "mostly independent", the Libertarians and Disaffected registered voters tend to lean Republican. If they are combined with the 25 percent mostly Republican voters, the Republican total becomes 46 percent versus the Mostly Democratic total of 40 percent. (2) So, the battle in a national election, and most importantly in the swing states, is for what Pew calls the Post-Moderns. Pew notes that this voting group is "largely white, well educated and affluent."

The good news for the Democrats is that, according to Pew, most of these voters "lean Democratic." The bad news is that they are "moderate". That means that they are persuadable in either direction. We should note that many of these moderates have probably already made their decisions and are reflected in polling numbers.

The question now is how to convince those moderates still withholding judgment. The answer, if our analysis of their thinking and decision-making style is correct, is that they should be allowed to convince themselves. They can't be communicated with in the same manner as the high anxiety or low information voters. They can't be hectored, tricked or scared. They are looking for information and data and the chance to exercise their free wills.

The best way to reach out to them is by applying a variant of the golden rule. The golden rule says "treat someone as you would like to be treated". Our version is "treat someone as she or he would like to be treated." As the campaigns wind down and put together their final messages, the critical thing to remember to secure support from those remaining undecided, moderate voters that might ensure victory in a tight state race is that it's not about who you are but who they are.