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.

Then they were exposed to one of two messages, one positive (he won the Gandhi Peace Prize) and one negative (he flip-flops on the issues.) Some students were told the messages came from one of their friends, and the others were told they came from a reputable radio program.

"I shouldn't expect my friend to know more about someone like Kucinich than myself," so the friend would not be very reliable as a source, Johar says. The radio report, she adds, from a "reliable program" would be a better source.

There was a "significant difference" between the people who had a strong opinion of Kucinich, and those who didn't, she says. The students who were ambivalent about the congressman were easily swayed by the report, regardless of its source. But students with a strong opinion were likely to be swayed only if the report came from the radio broadcast, not a friend.

Don't Be Fooled

Thus, she adds, ambivalent voters are likely to be less discriminating about the source of a report and more likely to be led astray by a disreputable source. That finding was reinforced by two additional experiments on ambivalence, including one involving consumer attitudes toward a shower gel.

Of course, there are many factors influencing an election. And there are many ways that voters can be swayed.

"If you hear something often enough, you tend to believe it," even if it's not plausible, Johar says. "If you attack Barack Obama 10 times, and I hear it 10 times, it might be from disreputable sources, but just the fact that it's being repeated so many times gives it some weight. After awhile, you quit asking where you heard it, and just kind of absorb it."

And that's regardless of whether you have a weak or strong opinion of the Illinois senator, she adds.

All of that could lead to a lot of hostility toward many of the candidates, but that's not necessarily all bad. According to a study at Ohio State University in Columbus, a little hatred would be good for voter turnout. The research was based on a nationwide survey covering the presidential elections from 1972 to 1988.

The bottom line: People who liked both candidates were less likely to vote. People who really disliked one of the candidates were much more likely to vote.

So what does all this tell us about the coming election? It's probably going to get nasty, but a lot of people will show up at the polls.