The Psychology of Voting

ByABC News
September 6, 2000, 8:48 AM

Sept. 6 -- 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.

Thats because we are far more likely to turn out because we cant stand someone than because we think one candidate is a really swell person.

Thats 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 theyve been hoping for, he says.

If it turns out that we cant stand either candidate, were 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, were 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 weve seen in the last few decades has done more to turn us off than fire us up. Following John F. Kennedys 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 its 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.