It's not the issues that likely make up many minds

[ Sat. Sep. 13. 2008 ]

The question is as maddening as it is quadrennial: How do the amoeba middle, the undecided, the independent, the low-information voters make up their minds?

What on earth goes through their brains?

We’re not talking about the partisans, the roughly 80 percent of voters who lean toward one party or the other and will generally go that way, assuming the candidate meets a reasonable threshold.

We’re talking about the other 20 percent. Some of these people like to guard their independence — studying issues, weighing candidates’ resumes and proposed solutions. That’s only a tiny percentage of the 20 percent, though. For the most part, this group doesn’t know much about public policy, or its knowledge is instinctual, with basic hard-wired ideas of justice.

This is not meant to be an insult. They’re busy. They hate politics. Can’t blame them.

“The decisive bloc of voters may indeed be people who don’t follow issues, so character may matter quite a bit,” said Michael McDonald, an expert on voter behavior at the Brookings Institution and George Mason University.

Within this context of “character,” how do voters make up their minds?

There are many theories, none conclusive.

“Why People Vote Republican,” a recent essay by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, offers some clues, tying “why” to the origins of morality.

He posits that liberal-leaning Americans tend to subscribe to social contract ethics: You and I agree we’re equals, and we won’t get in each other’s way. The basic values: fairness, reciprocity and helping those in need.

Social contract liberals tend not to care so much about victimless crime.

Traditional morality, however, arises out of a more ancient need to quell selfish desires and thus create strong groups, Haidt argues. Its adherents do this by demanding loyalty to the group, respecting authority and revering sanctified traditions, symbols, etc.

People often fall into one or the other category, and a candidate who speaks to these instincts will win over these voters.

Democrats who disrespect or fail to understand the second type of morality — the morality of sanctified symbols, authority and loyalty to group — do so at their peril, as when Sen. Barack Obama talked about bitter Americans clinging to God and guns.

Other theories:

University of California, Berkeley, linguist George Lakoff thinks conservatives are more aware of the importance of metaphor and language, and thus frame political debates to their advantage. So, for example, President Bush proposed “tax relief,” which made the current tax structure seem like an affliction. Who could oppose that? Examples are endless.

New York Times columnist David Brooks pointed this year to Princeton University psychologist Alexander Todorov, who claims he can predict the votes of 70 percent of test subjects by their facial reactions when seeing a candidate for the first time.

Other theorists think voters have an emotional response to candidates, and then create post-hoc rational reasons for supporting a candidate. They personally and emotionally like Arizona Sen. John McCain, and then come up with some reason: He’s against earmarks.

Brookings’ McDonald tends to work in the other direction. He thinks issues do matter, and quite a lot. In his view, people make a determination about whether they agree or disagree with the candidate on issues, and then fill in character blanks.

Such as: Candidate X wants to cut taxes, and I want a tax cut. Suddenly Candidate X seems more like a someone I’d like to have a beer with, as the (in)famous saying goes.

Or, Candidate Y wants to raise taxes, and suddenly the voter starts to think the candidate is a wine-swiller who’s out of touch with his values.

In this determination, I fill in character traits based on whether I agree or disagree with the candidate on the issues.

But what if I have little or no information on the candidate and his issues?

Now we’re back to that 20 percent of voters, and again trying to figure out what moves them.

Or as McDonald put it: “The dirty little secret of American politics is that the least informed decide the winner.”

Sun reporter Joe Schoenmann contributed to this story.

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