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Democrats vs. Science: Why We're So Damn Good at Losing Elections

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"The myth behind the Thompson quasi-candidacy is a dangerous one that bedevils both parties: If we just get a better communicator, people will love our policies."fred11.jpeg

So writes John Dickerson, chief political correspondent of Slate, in his recent piece on why the prospect of Law & Order star Fred Thompson running as a Republican candidate for president shouldn't concern anyone.

Unfortunately, Dickerson is just flat wrong. A number of scary scientific studies (some described below), a wealth of survey data, and common sense all demonstrate that swing voters don't necessarily choose the candidate whose policies they like - they choose the candidate they personally feel better about. And that's most likely your winner.

But there is an even bigger issue lurking just below the surface here. The fact that someone in Dickerson's position could draw such an ill-informed conclusion goes a long way towards explaining Democrats' uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in presidential politics.

It's no myth: the better communicator wins. And what's worse, the only party bedeviled by misunderstanding is our own.

Proving the Emperor Naked

Plenty of folks appreciate how much the communicator counts just from following the news. After all, why did so many people vote for Ronald Reagan even though they disagreed with him on the issues they cared about most? Why did Bill Clinton go 2 for 2 in presidential elections when all the other Democratic contenders in the last three decades were a combined 0 for 5? And why is Barack Obama anything more than just a junior senator?

But others may want a little more convincing. So allow me to drop some science on y'all:

- As early as the 1980s, analyses of National Election Study data - a giant data set examining voters' feelings, attitudes and opinions around every US election since 1952 - revealed that voting preferences are consistently much more strongly correlated with voters' feelings about individual candidates than with voters' agreement with candidates' issue positions.

- A Princeton study published in the journal Science found that when people were briefly shown images of the two candidates in an unfamiliar congressional election, their reactions predicted the winner seven times out of ten. A similar study by Harvard researchers (full disclosure: my communications firm helped sponsor and conduct it) found people could predict the election winner much more often than chance after briefly watching silent video of each candidate speaking behind a podium. In fact, their accuracy was comparable to that of predictions based on campaign spending. (If you've read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink or otherwise know about "thin-slicing" judgments, that's what we're talking about.)

So what's going on here? The NES data tell us that voters are making their choices based on how they feel about candidates personally, not whether or not they agree on issues. And the brief image experiments tell us that those feelings are strongly influenced by completely non-verbal factors like posture, gestures, facial expressions and appearance. (It's important to point out that this is not simply about model-good looks; Fred Thompson's is not a pretty face.)

It's not that words and issues don't matter at all; they certainly do. Issues certainly figure into voters' judgments; for partisans, they're almost always the primary concern. But swing voters by definition are not strongly committed to the policy views of one side or the other. For many of them, compelling language and policy positions are as important for how they shape their feelings about the candidate as they are for their own virtues. (Just to be clear, no one is disputing that sound ideas are critical to governing well. We're just talking about getting elected.)

Is this scary? Sure. Unwelcome? Clearly. Contrary to everything we ever learned about democracy, from kindergarten through the Federalist Papers? Absolutely. And even though it can work in our favor too (e.g., Bill Clinton), it is profoundly dispiriting, to say the least, to realize how unhinged the process is from the issues that ultimately matter in governing.

But better to face that reality now, while we can still do something about it, than to place our faith in the fairy-tale version of democracy and be left grasping for excuses after we lose.

The Beef

Now hold on a minute: Dickerson only claimed that being a better communicator wouldn't necessarily make people love that candidate's policies. It is certainly true, and worth his saying, that even good communication will not necessarily make people agree with, or forgive, a really terrible policy blunder. Iraq and Katrina spring to mind. (On the other hand, few American politicians are as directly responsible for the deaths of as many Americans as Rudy Giuliani - he (1) failed to get firefighters the radios they needed to know to evacuate when the towers became unstable, (2) ordered NYC's emergency response center built in the shadow of the towers, where some of its evacuated staff were crushed when they fell, and (3) failed to protect Ground Zero rescue workers from the obviously toxic air - yet he is polling strongly for president as the hero of 9/11 because of the power of the few reassuring remarks he made that day.)

But the fact that Dickerson doesn't talk directly about winning elections doesn't redeem his statement; it just shows how deep the misconception goes. He only says that voters won't love someone's policies even if they communicate well. But he implies that the next logical step in his argument goes without saying: voters certainly would never vote for someone whose policies they disagreed with just because they communicated effectively. If only it were so.

I don't mean to be mean. I'm only picking on Dickerson because he happened to stick his neck out. Really he is just giving voice to the traditional understanding of all highly educated elites: voters may have imperfect information, but they advance their rational self-interest as best they can by electing candidates who support their preferred policies.

Now you might think that such highly educated folks would pay attention to the science on this subject. But, for the most part, you'd be wrong. If a scientist today wrote that the sun revolved around the earth, people would laugh. But though the relevant psychological insights are old news in academic circles, many liberal establishment thinkers carry on oblivious - the political equivalent of flat-earthers.

And who's left laughing? The GOP.

Reality-Based Republicans

Yes, as with direct mail and getting-out-the-vote and micro-targeting and everything else, our Republican counterparts have been way ahead of us here too. As memorably put by Drew Westen of Emory University, author of the forthcoming book The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, the irony here is that the party of faith pays close attention to the science of voter decision-making, while we in the alledged party of science still place inordinate faith in voters' appreciation of our policy proposals.
george11.jpeg
Did you ever wonder why, way back before anyone had ever heard the word "macaca," junior Senator George Allen was already considered a top GOP Presidential prospect for 2008? My partners and I did, so we took a trip up to New Hampshire and asked folks there what they thought of this guy. We showed them silent video images of Allen pitted against images of some of the lesser-known likely Democratic candidates (today's three leading contenders were too well known up there, or in Obama's case not on the radar) to see which person they predicted would win an election. (This was a quick-and-dirty version of what we call a "Virtual Primary" - a forward-looking evaluation tool similar to the thin-slicing experiments discussed above.) The result? George Allen cleaned up, winning more than seven out of every ten match-ups. When we pitted Allen against then-Democratic-darling Mark Warner, three times as many people picked Allen to win. (The only Democrat who held his ground against Allen was, I'm sorry to report, the recently retired Tom Vilsack.) The GOP may not have run a formal analysis, but they clearly understood they had a talented guy on their hands in Allen (even if they didn't yet appreciate what a cretin he was).

In fact, the Republicans have understood this stuff for decades. In one oft-retold (but rarely fully appreciated) story, back in the 1980s Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes ran a piece skewering Reagan's policies on the elderly - or so she thought. But while her voiceover delivered a scathing critique, the video footage was all drawn from carefully-staged photo-ops of Reagan smiling with seniors and addressing large crowds with a determined look on his face. After it ran, Reagan image polisher Mike Deaver called Stahl, who braced herself to be chewed out for doing such a one-sided hit piece. Instead, Deaver thanked the mystified Stahl...for broadcasting all those images of Reagan looking his best.

Twenty years later, many in the press are still mystified.

Who's Calling Who "Irrational"?

Many Democrats are still mystified too, even those with long political experience. How can that be? Aren't we the party of science, smart people and ideas? We are, but that has its own perils too. We are Democrats because we want to see the world become a better place, and believe we have policy ideas that will help. It is our strength, but also our weakness: We have such a keen understanding of how important sound policy thinking is in governing that it's hard for us to imagine that anyone wouldn't consider the issues above all else when casting a ballot. Our powerful love of policy blinds us to the experience of the average swing voter.

Which is the second great irony here: Democrats feel wronged when swing voters let emotion cloud their view of reality, but our side often doesn't grasp the reality of how swing voters make up their minds because we can't get past our own emotional attachment to the power of ideas. We accuse swing voters of voting capriciously, irrationally, but if we were only rational ourselves, we could easily see why they do.

In fact, unlike blinkered Democrats, in some ways swing voters are acting perfectly rationally by voting with their gut (yet another irony, if you're still counting). For voters who don't pay close attention to issues, it's not easy to figure out which positions are best (not least because conservative think tanks and media do an excellent job at muddying the waters of debates democrats would otherwise win). So what can a casual voter do? Go with what they know. Every day they make judgments about people they interact with, size 'em up, trust their instincts. So they use the same method to pick a candidate.

But if you're not really engaged with the issues, does it even make a difference to you who wins? Actually, it does. Because as long as that person is in office, he (usually a he, still) will speak to you through your car radio. He'll appear on your TV. He'll be joked about by comedians, discussed among your friends and relatives. Your kids may even ask you what you think of him. And if you don't feel generally positive about this person, all of that is going to be more unpleasant than it has to be. And that definitely matters to you.

All of which begs the question: if being good on issues is (necessary for partisans but) not sufficient to win swing voters, what does it take? I can offer my thoughts, but that's a whole other subject for another time. The good news is that lots of Democrats get this stuff; they understand why and how to connect with swing voters on a visceral level. The problem is there are still plenty more, some in high places, who have yet to make their peace with this.

Another reasonable question: Why bring this up now? Didn't we just win a historic victory last fall? Yes we did, thankfully. That goes to show that if your governing stinks conspicuously enough, people aren't going to feel very good about you.

But just as an evidence-based understanding of political issues is essential to governing well, we should be using an evidence-based understanding of how voters think if we want to do better in 2008 than we did in 2004. We dismiss that evidence - and the Fred Thompsons of the world - at our peril.

This post has been edited slightly since it was first published.