The Psychology of Voting

ByLee Dye

Sept. 6, 2000 -- If you really want to make more people go to the polls on election day, put someone on the ballot a lot of people hate.

That’s because we are far more likely to turn out because we can’t stand someone than because we think one candidate is a really swell person.

That’s one of the conclusions of an ambitious study of voter attitudes spanning a 24-year period led by Jon A. Krosnick, professor of psychology and political science at Ohio State University.

Reacting to the Bad Guy

“People are more motivated by the threat of something bad than the opportunity for something good,” says Krosnick.

But the research also turns up this bit of surprising news: We really want to like these folks. The study shows that there is an element of optimism in how we approach politicians.

“Our work shows that people approach each new politician with hope and optimism that maybe this will be the hero they’ve been hoping for,” he says.

If it turns out that we can’t stand either candidate, we’re not very likely to vote because either way, we lose, and the dismal choice turns us off. And if we like both candidates about the same, we’re also less likely to vote because either way, we win.

So in order to have high voter turnout, we need a saint and a villain.

But apparently, what we’ve seen in the last few decades has done more to turn us off than fire us up. Following John F. Kennedy’s defeat of Richard Nixon in 1960, voter turnout declined streadily through 1988. It rose slightly again in 1992, and then fell again in 1996.

There are probably many reasons for the decline, but the researchers point out that the fire in the belly of most voters cooled significantly over the past four decades, with few candidates managing to raise passions either pro or con.

We have become, in a word, uninterested.

Mud-Slinging Works

The research also suggests that a lot of campaign managers are right about one thing: Negative advertising really works, provided it’s done with enough taste to keep the mudslinger from getting a bit tarnished by his or her own mud. It takes a touch of class to sling mud effectively.

The study, involving researchers from Princeton and Northwestern universities and the University of Chicago, builds upon data collected in face-to-face interviews with thousands of Americans over the course of many elections by the National Election Study. The ongoing study, which began at the University of Michigan in 1952, has been funded for the last 30 years by the National Science Foundation.

Results from that larger study are available to scholars across the country, and it is on that body of work that the researchers base their conclusions about why we bothered to vote at all during the years from 1972 through 1996.

The bottom line, Krosnick says, is we approach politicians the same way we approach other people and issues, like who we want to marry and which breakfast cereal we prefer. We want to give the other guy the benefit of the doubt, but if we feel betrayed, we want to throw the rascal out.

As an old political pol once told me, issues don’t decide elections. Personalities decide who wins and who loses. Never mind the future of social security. The winning candidate needs to know how to smile convincingly. We’ve got to like the person more than agree with how he or she stands on the issues.

Perhaps the most surprising result of the study is how we regard emerging politicians about whom we know very little. The study shows that most people approach a politician they don’t know the same way they approach anybody else.

“When people know nothing about a new person they are about to meet, they walk into that interaction slightly optimistically, hoping and expecting that the person will be pleasant, competent, enjoyable,” Krosnick says.

It doesn’t matter if the new person is a blind date or a presidential candidate. We still hope for a pleasurable experience. Maybe what that suggests is we really want to like each other, regardless of occupation.

Love/Hate at First Site

That first meeting, incidentally, turns out to be very important down the road. First impressions really do matter most.

The study shows that if people liked, or disliked, the candidate at the first encounter, that opinion proved really hard to change later on. That suggests that current marketing strategies for candidates — saving the big bucks for the end of the campaign — is dead wrong.

“Candidates tend to save their money so they can have the biggest blitzes of advertising at the end of the campaign, right before people vote, on the assumption that people will have forgotten everything they heard earlier,” Krosnick says. “Our results show that if you can spend the same dollar making a first impression on people, that will have more impact on their ultimate behavior than throwing in something at the last minute.”

But in the end, he adds, what really seems to make a difference is the success of one candidate at vilifying an opponent, without looking too nasty in the process.

“It’s not all that surprising that people put more weight on the failings of candidates than they do on the strengths of them,” Krosnick says.

In other words, it’s easier to cross someone off because there’s something about him or her that you can’t stomach than it is to search out the virtues that would make the candidate a good public servant. And as so many candidates have shown over the years, it’s pretty easy to stumble out there, giving voters an easy target.

So, George and Al, or Al and George, it appears that it’s your election to lose.

You’ll make it easier on us busy voters if one of you lays a giant egg sometime before the election. We may be basically optimistic, but if you give us a reason to hate you we will turn out in droves to blast you out of the sky. Unless, of course, the other guy lays an egg of equal stench. Then we will just stay away from the polling booth.

What a system. But as political commentator David Brinkley once noted, somehow it works.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.