Democracy vs. Oligarchy Part 5: Can Psychology Help with a U-Turn?

A week from the posting of this blog, primaries will take place in NY State. It is the first time I can remember when the presidential primary will have such a large impact on both the Democratic and the Republican sides. Up to the time of writing, I was exposed to one TV ad by Bernie Sanders and one ad by Donald Trump against Ted Cruz. I am getting a constant flood of emails from two of the current Republican candidates (Ted Cruz and John Kasich) and I got a barrage of emails from Marco Rubio before he dropped out. Cruz’s email always start with “fellow Conservative.” I am not a conservative. Kasich’s emails and (Rubio’s emails before he ended his campaign) lead with pointing out how well he did in the last primary, as well as claiming that he is the last chance to prevent Trump from getting the nomination. I am not a Republican and I don’t vote in the Republican primaries. Interestingly, I am not getting (as of now – 10 days before the election) any requests for support from the two parties’ leading candidates – Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. It is obvious that the emails I get are computer-generated and I treat them as spam. To be effective, the senders ought to know the voters well enough to specifically target their pleas. Much more importantly, however, campaigns need to know about the non-voters so they can try to convince them to participate.

Iowa was the first state to cast its stakes in this election cycle, leading the primary season with both the Democratic and Republican caucuses. Ted Cruz was one of the 12 contenders to be selected by the Iowa Republicans as presidential candidates. He used what have since been labeled “shaming emails” to convince participants that he believed to be friendly to him to participate:

“You are receiving this election notice because of low expected voter turnout in your area. Your individual voting history as well as your neighbors’ are public record.  Their scores are published below, and many of them will see your score as well.  CAUCUS ON MONDAY TO IMPROVE YOUR SCORE and please encourage your neighbors to caucus as well.  A follow-up notice may be issued following Monday’s caucuses.”

The strategy was controversial but apparently effective – he won the Iowa caucus, overturning Trump’s predicted win, and is now one of his party’s three contenders left. Furthermore, he’s considered one of the two with a real chance at being the party’s nominee. I have no idea how many psychologists Cruz is employing in his campaign.

We have a better idea of the workings behind President Obama’s successful 2012 presidential campaign due to a piece published in a blog associated with “Psychology Today,” a widely-read bi-monthly magazine:

The New York Times reported that the Obama campaign sought the assistance of a “dream team” of behavioral scientists to help them win the U.S. Presidential campaign. Included in the consortium of advisors were social psychologists Robert Cialdini and Susan Fiske, along with other psychologists from business schools, behavioral economists, and political scientists.Drawing on research from social psychology, persuasion, and decision making, the dream team consortium contributed ideas for the Obama team. For example, Dr. Fiske emphasized that a successful candidate has to convey both competence and warmth in order to have appeal to voters. Using the idea of “commitment and consistency” (based on cognitive dissonance theory), it was suggested that the Obama campaign volunteers not just ask about intentions to vote for Obama, but encouraged them to make a specific plan on how to get to the polls, and designate a specific time.

In dealing with the right wing claim that Obama was a Muslim, it was suggested that an affirming, competing message would be more effective than simply denying the claim. The Obama campaign apparently took this advice to heart and repeatedly emphasized that Obama is a Christian.

As the article notes, it is interesting that for decades political campaigns have used advertising and sales professionals, but rarely sought the assistance of psychologists and social scientists. It is reported that the Romney campaign did not show interest in behavioral scientists’ assistance – not surprising given the Republican emphasis on reducing funding for scientific research generally, and social science in particular.

The following look at registered nonvoters was also posted on the “Psychology Today” blog:

These days, some of the very best data on voter participation in the US come from the US Census Bureau.  For the past few decades, the Census Bureau has mounted a large-scale survey during each federal election, both midterm and presidential races.  The Census Bureau’s surveys are relatively straightforward in their design, but as they have very large samples they provide a rich resource for researchers.

In recent years, our team at the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project (link is external) has made use of a surprisingly simple question in the recent Census Bureau voting surveys.  The Census Bureau has asked registered nonvoters to simply state why it is that they don’t vote.  And the answers to this simple question are very telling about why Americans who are otherwise registered do not vote.

In the 2008 Census Bureau voting survey, topping the list of reasons for not voting is a lack of interest (13%) or a dislike of the candidates or issues (13%).  More than a quarter of registered nonvoters in 2008 didn’t vote because they weren’t interested or didn’t like their choices.

Many reported illness or disability (15%), especially among older registered nonvoters.  Others were too busy, or had conflicting schedules (17%).  That’s about a third of the registered nonvoters.

Of the remainder, many had some logistical problem with the process:  6% had problems with their voter registration, 3% did not have convenient polling places, and another 3% had some sort of transportation problem.  And 0.2% reported that bad weather conditions kept them from the polls on election day.

What does this tell us about why not all of those who are registered actually cast a ballot in the 2008 presidential election?  According to the Census Bureau data, 131 million people participated in that election, of 146 million registered voters, and of 206 million citizens who are of voting age.  Those who are registered and otherwise eligible to vote, but who don’t, are tuned out or turned off; they are sick or too busy; or they have something procedural that prevents them from voting.

It’s difficult to say how our presidential elections could be changed so that so many weren’t tuned out or turned off.  No doubt the negativity of campaigns, which I’ve written about recently, has something to do with that.  But changing that will be difficult, if not impossible, given how political speech is constitutionally protected in the US.

But the other issues can be resolved; many states have been working to make the voting process more convenient, and less burdensome, for voters.  However, these reforms have recently come under attack throughout the nation, which may mean that more voters in 2012 will find it difficult and inconvenient to cast their ballot.

The focus of the work that Alvarez describes is registered voters that don’t vote. Of course, his piece predates the results from the Pew Research Survey that I discussed in part 1 of this series (March 15, 2016). As we saw there, compared to other countries, our rates of registered voters who vote are not bad at all. The area where we are lagging badly is among eligible voters that have not registered.

As I mentioned last week, I think that Political Psychology can tell us a lot about participation in the political process:

Political psychology is an interdisciplinary academic field dedicated to understanding politics, politicians and political behavior from a psychological perspective. The relationship between politics and psychology is considered bi-directional, with psychology being used as a lens for understanding politics and politics being used as a lens for understanding psychology. As an interdisciplinary field, political psychology borrows from a wide range of other disciplines, including: anthropology, sociology, international relations, economics, philosophy, media, journalism and history.

Unfortunately, it does not seem like the discipline is particularly directed at increasing voting participation.

Here is a somewhat more colorful description of what one political psychologist thinks about the voting process and the choices we face:

Imagine that this coming Saturday, you’re going out to the movies with a friend; to be nice, you’ve decided to let your friend pick the movie you’ll see.  Who would you rather the friend be: (1) someone who shares your taste in movies but doesn’t read movie reviews and knows nothing about which movies in the theaters now are dogs, (2) someone who reads lots of movie reviews but doesn’t like all the things you like, or (3) someone who once picked out a movie for you to see that you liked?  In other words, should you choose someone who shares your preferences, has expertise, or has a small track record of success in the past?That’s the sort of decision all Americans face every time they have to vote in a presidential election.  Should we endorse the candidate who agrees with us most about what government should do (Keep abortion legal or outlaw it?  Make it harder to buy a handgun in America, or make it easier?)?  Or should we endorse the candidate who knows the most about solving the nation’s problems?  Or should we throw our support to a candidate whose party has proven to be the most successful in running the country in the recent past?

Rarely do we find all these desirable qualities in one candidate, so we have to decide how to decide – which criterion should rule the day this time around?

Again, the emphasis here is whom to vote for, rather than a feeling of obligation to participate in the process. Next week I will conclude this series with an attempt to describe what is at stake here.

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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