The way we vote for candidates is a lot like the way we choose our spouses. That’s the argument Drew Westen, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University, makes in his book “The Political Brain.” Emotion, not dispassionate assessment, rules, he posits.
“The idea of the mind as a cool calculator that makes decisions by weighing the evidence bears no relation to how the brain actually works,” according to a summary of the book by the website Public Affairs. “When political candidates assume voters dispassionately make decisions based on ‘the issues,’ they lose. That’s why only one Democrat has been re-elected to the presidency since Franklin Roosevelt and only one Republican has failed in that quest.”
Not surprisingly, Democratic strategist and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who led his party through its successful 2008 campaign, recommended the book for his party’s candidates.
Westen argues that elections are decided in the marketplace of emotions, where “values, images, analogies, moral sentiments and moving oratory” rule, not logic. So what works is not moving a candidate — Democratic, Republican or independent — toward the middle, where he or she might garner more votes, but rather “moving” voters, in the same way people are moved by watching a powerful movie that makes them cry.
Westen writes: “The most important feelings are gut-level feelings, from global emotional reactions (e.g., ‘I like this person’) to more specific feelings (e.g., ‘She makes me proud to be an American’). Ronald Reagan successfully associated Jimmy Carter with humiliation for his inability to get the Iranian hostages home, just as Bill Clinton associated George H. Bush with anxiety about the economy. … Both men, as challengers, associated themselves with hope.”
And of course, a more recent, successful Democratic candidate for president used hope as political emotional currency.
Westen uses psychological and cognitive neuroscience research to show how brains respond to statements by candidates. Confronted with evidence of their candidate’s duplicity or contradictory statements, the emotional portion, not the reason portion, of the supporter’s brain showed activity in scans.
This is not to suggest that the electorate is hopelessly shallow. Rather, Westen argues that the successful candidate starts with a set of clearly articulated values and principles and works so voters associate those with the candidate. Then the candidate can get specific about policies, but he writes that they “should use policy positions to illustrate their principles, not the other way around.”
So as Maine’s gubernatorial campaigns hit the final stretch, the polls in some ways reflect the degree to which candidates have connected in this basic, yet profound way. Paul LePage, the front-runner, has a compelling personal story of survival and hard work, beating the odds to succeed.
The time has come for voters to move beyond the emotion stage to evaluate the policies of the candidates for their efficacy in achieving their stated goals.