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Emotions often guide voters

Every cycle Democratic pollsters develop messages that purport to give our candidates substantial leads over Republicans. But too regularly those messages disappoint by losing. To cite one example, on Election Day in 2000, Al Gore’s pollster presented a message that was preferred to Bush’s by a 17-point margin, a result not replicated in voting booths.  

Every cycle Democratic pollsters develop messages that purport to give our candidates substantial leads over Republicans. But too regularly those messages disappoint by losing. To cite one example, on Election Day in 2000, Al Gore’s pollster presented a message that was preferred to Bush’s by a 17-point margin, a result not replicated in voting booths.  

Why not? 

Sometimes voters prefer a message, but not the messenger.

We like to think that elections are about, well, politics – big ideas, public policy, and national choices.  And to an important extent, they are.  Certainly those are the words, but they are not always the music (and as Peter, Paul and Mary taught us, “Music speaks louder than words”).  We give far too little attention to the music, the emotions that guide voter decision-making and the ways in which we can create emotional experiences for people.

Cognitive neuroscience teaches us that our brains construct a reality for us based on relatively limited external input.  Not only is the input limited, 95 percent of the processing is unconscious, involving those parts of the brain that are implicated in our emotional reactions.

Rarely do voters make deliberate decisions by consciously contemplating the attributes of each candidate, understanding their issue positions, digesting their messages and logically processing the information.  Rather, decisions emerge from a complex interplay of unconscious habits, emotions, and reason.

In 1848, Phineas Gage, an extremely intelligent Vermont railroad worker, was injured in an explosion that drove a small steel rod through part of his brain.  Miraculously he recovered— his memory, intellect, language and reasoning power remained in tact.  However, a section of the brain that regulates emotion was damaged.  As a result, Gage could no longer make good decisions that were beneficial to him.

Why do I bother to relate this nearly ancient case of medical trivia?  Simply because it illustrates well what subsequent research has clearly demonstrated: often decision-making is not primarily a function of reasoning, but of emotion.  Gage had the intellectual faculties and reasoning ability to make the same kind of good decisions he has always made.  But he was no longer able to make such decisions, precisely because he had lost his emotional core.

Indeed, people often make decisions before they are even conscious of that fact.  Emotional reactions precede and shape conscious awareness.  The areas of the human brain implicated in making choices are activated well before we consciously make a choice.  Frequently, our explanations of those decisions are post-hoc rationalizations of unconscious, emotion-based processes.

These emotional impressions are almost by definition personal.  People vote for people, not just for platforms, proposals or ideas.  What they learn about the person, how voters regard a candidate, shapes how they process all of the other inputs. Much of that input, much of what people learn about others, comes not from words but from nonverbal cues.  Whatever the source of the input however, research shows that personal reactions to candidates generally, and affective responses in particular, are much more powerful determinants of vote than issue positions.

Some races will be won simply by having a better slogan, a tighter political argument or highlighting a different set of issues.  Many will not. Focusing exclusively on these facets of communication is to miss how people process information. The 95 percent of processing that is unconscious does not receive, and cannot even use, that kind of information.  A winning argument is only part of the battle.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.