Elections: A Lesson in Human Behavior

  • Tuesday, October 16, 2012

In approximately three weeks Americans will go to their polling places to elect a President, one-third of the US Senate, 435 Congressmen and local elected officials up and down the ballot. It is common knowledge and factual that most incumbents win reelection. This fact is often explained by notions such as better name ID, the quality of their incumbent representation and years of incumbent communication. While all three of these play a role, they are not the underlying reason why incumbents get reelected.

To truly understand the nature of an election, one must view it from a perspective of human behavior first and foremost, rather than from the normal day-to-day political rhetoric reported in the broadcast and print media. There are some basic and fundamentally human traits which lead to incumbency prevailing. Those traits are as follows:

n In order to succeed in a political campaign you must be perceived as “creditable” for the office for which you are running. For voters who need to make a decision about candidate “X” the incumbent or candidate “Y” the challenger, before candidate “Y” can even get their consideration, he or she must demonstrate they are truly creditable for the office they seek.

When a popular mayor decides to run for Congress or some other higher office and loses handily, the usual explanation is, the voters did not want to lose their popular mayor. This is not true. What is true is that voters have what behavioral scientists call cognitive maps in their head which define for them what a Congressman is versus what a mayor is. These two visions are distinctly different. This is the principle reason for the mayor's loss.

We actually saw this happen as a by-product of the first Presidential debate. Up until that time, the incumbent President was winning against his challenger in large measure because the challenger had not met the threshold of being perceived as credible for the office. Aside from the instant commentary on “who won the debate” the principal and significant victory for the challenger was that post-debate, he was perceived as credible for the office for which he is running.

n There are two things that we as human beings, from the behavioral perspective, have difficulty doing.  The first is admitting to ourselves we have made a mistake and secondly, making change. Just think about smoking and then quitting, for example.

Most of the voters who will be voting this November will be the same voters who voted four years ago. For a challenger to succeed requires that some portion of those voters admit to themselves they made a mistake in voting for the now incumbent and secondly be willing to make a change in their vote.

This is the fundamental behavioral reason that contributes to an incumbent's reelection. While issues, positions and the general climate of life for the voter certainly play a role, these two underlying human phenomena are the core problems any challenger must overcome if he or she is to be successful in beating any incumbent.

n Subjects that drive at a voter's intention are ultimately determinative in outcomes. Both parties, their candidates and now, in our mass media, there are daily discussions of issues that this whole group believes to be important. Unfortunately, most of this discussion is marginally relevant to the voters individually and aggregately. Voters focus on basic fundamental concerns which ultimately are determinative on how they cast their ballot. Examples abound. While pro-life and pro-choice advocates push candidates on this issue, the reality is that when it comes to voting, less than 10% of the voting population cast their ballot on this subject and their votes cancel each other out, 50% to 50%. That issue does not drive at aggregate voter intention.

For a candidate to be successful they need to ascertain what issues are really driving at the voter's intention. Traditionally in national elections, those issues have revolved around foreign policy, economics, taxes, government spending and their own personal certainty as to their own future.

As we watch the balance of the elections play out, it might be useful to you to view the campaigns through the prism of these three elements of human behavior.

And by the way … VOTE!




Lynn Mueller is a veteran Republican campaign consultant who has joined Swatzel Strategies. His bi-monthly column in the Georgetown Times focuses on economics and politics.

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