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politics, aim for the heart, not the head
September 18, 2006
In 1935, researchers
from Columbia University fanned out around the city of Allentown,
Pa., and handed out leaflets ahead of local and state elections.
What residents did not know was that they were part of an experiment
in political persuasion -- an experiment whose results came to mind
last week as Adrian M. Fenty stormed to victory in the District's
divided Allentown into sections. Five thousand campaign leaflets
in some wards asked residents to answer a series of questions about
policy matters. For example, it asked them whether they thought
all children should have access to higher education irrespective
of income, whether banks should be run on a nonprofit basis like
schools and whether workers ought to have more say in running their
Another set of
5,000 campaign leaflets went to a different set of wards. These
leaflets contained a heartfelt letter -- supposedly from the young
people of Allentown -- which said that with "Dad working only part-time
on little pay, and Mother trying to make last year's coat and dress
look in season," the future for young people in the city looked
looked at how many voters in the two sections they could persuade
to vote for the Socialist Party, rather than the Republicans or
Democrats. (The Socialist Party was chosen because it had no chance
of winning the elections.)
What the researchers
wanted to study was the contrast between rational and emotional
appeals in political persuasion. The questionnaire's appeal was
rational. It asked people who wanted a more egalitarian society
to vote their views on policy matters. The letter's appeal was emotional:
"We beg you in the name of those early memories and spring-time
hopes to support the Socialist ticket in the coming elections!"
it said. When the election was over, the Socialist vote increased
by 35 percent over the previous election in the sections of the
city that received the rational appeal. In the sections that received
the emotional appeal, the Socialist vote increased by 50 percent.
Given the enormous
proliferation of policy questions today, surfing the emotional wave
nowadays may be even more important than it was in 1935. George
E. Marcus, president of the International Society of Political Psychology,
said modern research confirms that unless political ads evoke emotional
responses, they don't have much effect. Voters, he explained, need
to be emotionally primed in some way before they will pay attention.
The research is
of importance to politicians for obvious reasons -- and partly explains
the enduring attraction of negative advertising -- but it is also
important to voters, because it suggests that the reason candidates
seem appealing often has little to do with their ideas. Political
campaigns are won and lost at a more emotional and subtle level.
Democratic mayoral primary, for instance, turned on which candidate
seemed freshest and most energetic. By that measure, Fenty, 35,
bested a field of same-old, same-old insiders, including his nearest
rival, Linda W. Cropp, 58.
But why should
that issue have been the one that voters cared about? Why not maturity
and experience, in which case Cropp may have looked like the natural
The success of
the Fenty campaign, several political psychologists said, was in
making energy the central emotive issue in the campaign. Once it
was the top item on the agenda, Fenty had to win. (Besides being
amid a whirlwind of activity, the candidate made sure he said the
words "energy" and "energized" every chance he got. Reporters followed
Fenty's lead, attaching the adjective "energetic" to news reports
about his campaign.)
The Fenty machine
essentially took advantage of what the Allentown study found: It
is comparatively difficult to persuade anyone to change their mind
on an issue. What works much better, because it influences people
at an emotional and subtle level, is to get people to focus on a
different issue -- the one where the candidate is the strongest.
effect is what we are talking about," said Nicholas A. Valentino,
a political psychologist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
"The ability of a candidate not to tell people how to feel about
an issue, but which issue they should focus on -- that is the struggle
of most modern campaign managers."
been much more successful at shifting people's attentions to different
issues rather than shifting people's positions," he added.
A political scientist
who lives in the District, Lee Sigelman, pointed out that as Fenty
put the question of energy at the top of the agenda, Cropp tried
to strike back with ads painting Fenty as inexperienced.
But it was too
late. As many politicians before her have realized, no one notices
when the first nimble candidate changes the agenda. It's always
the candidates who come late to the agenda wars who look like they
are trying to manipulate voters.
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