Pick Your Candidate … NOW

Next year's election is already in high gear, with a gazillion candidates wanting to be our next president. Have you figured out yet which ones you hate the most?

Don't wait too long, because new research suggests this could turn into a bitter contest with many voters misled by false prophets and mudslingers. Indecisive voters may be particularly vulnerable to disreputable sources.

Research shows that the first stage in narrowing the field is elimination. Which candidates give us a reason to drop them from consideration? It seems that it's easier to find fault than virtue.

So Easy to Be Spun

So we plunge into this process amid signs the political high road may be a bit hard to find in this campaign. There are so many candidates that it's likely many voters will have trouble deciding who is most likely to do the most damage, or on the positive side, who is most likely to get us out of the mess we're in.

Many will remain ambivalent until Election Day. And that, say researchers at Columbia University, is a problem.

Gita Johar, a consumer psychologist, and Martin Zemborain, now with Austral University in Argentina, conducted three experiments that found that ambivalent people are more likely to be misled by a disreputable source than are people who feel committed to a particular candidate.

Or put more bluntly, this election could be a candy store for scoundrels.

Consider the Source

The research suggests that ambivalent people are more likely to ignore the source of a claim about a candidate, regardless of how absurd the claim is, than people who are less ambivalent, Johar says.

"Fence sitters would be most influenced by any new information, regardless of whether it is positive or negative, and regardless of the source," she says.

The large field of candidates will probably lead to more ambivalence by more voters, she believes. Most voters know relatively little about many of the candidates, including some of the early front-runners, and that will make them more easily influenced, or led astray, by others. It is also likely that the fact that one major candidate is a woman, and another is an African American, will trouble some voters, even if they aren't aware of it, she says.

And the longer voters remain on the fence, the more vulnerable they will be.

The True Power of Attack Ads

"The people who don't decide until the last minute are the ones who are going to be most taken in by negative advertising, regardless of whether the ad is really plausible or not," Johar says.

The researchers, who will publish their findings in the March issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, recruited 250 undergraduates at Columbia University to see if they could document when consumers, including voters, consider the source of a report, and when they don't. They were particularly interested in the role played by ambivalence, which previous research shows leaves a person more open to persuasion.

The study was conducted in 2003, when Dennis J. Kucinich was a dark horse candidate for president. The Ohio congressman was not as well-known to the New York students as some of the other candidates, and the students were asked how strongly they felt about him, either good or bad.

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