by Portia Stewart // Fall 2012

Behind the ballotIt’s a day you look forward to all year. A day when far-away family members gather together around the table to give thanks and pass plate after plate of turkey stuffed to its gills, downy piles of mashed potatoes and green bean casserole with those delicious crunchy fried onions on top. It’s a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving—almost. When the conversation turns from good-natured ribbing about football rivalries to politics, the day takes a turn.

And with the dust barely settled on the presidential election, a few folks at the table are hot that their candidate lost. As the conversation escalates to a fur-flying shouting match—where does your brother get off saying that?!—you fantasize about punching him square in the gizzard.

Hold that thought for a second, and keep this in mind when politics enter any conversation: Most peoples’ minds are already made up when it comes to the presidential election. A person’s party affiliation is the single biggest factor in how he or she votes, but other factors—from personality to genetics and life experiences—all play a role, and those things are different for every person. So, resist the urge to punch a family member, and instead consider what might be shaping his or her views and their voting decisions—and your own.

Nature vs. nurture

During elections, voters are swamped with messages from candidates for elections big and small. The weapons of political warfare range from yard signs and mailers to TV attack ads—and they’re relentless. With the growth of the Internet, the spread of social media, and the advent of super PACs, it’s difficult to escape the swarm of constant messaging. But how effective are these messages, really? What if your party affiliation is hardwired into your DNA?

University of California, San Diego, researchers found that two genes related to regulating serotonin may shape personality traits and decision-making styles. They have also conducted research on the dopamine receptor gene DRD4. Researchers identified a link between a variant of the gene—dubbed the liberal gene—and people who were more likely to be liberals as adults. But this doesn’t mean your genes determine a person’s party affiliation, says Elizabeth Miller, Ph.D., assistant professor in the political science department at UMKC. “Pundits have argued that scientists are trying to find a Republican gene or a liberal gene, and there’s no such thing,” she says. “What researchers are actually doing is examining whether there are commonalities among individuals in their political attitudes and behaviors, and whether those commonalities stem from genetic predisposition.”

Think of it this way: Genes may influence someone’s personality traits, so it’s not a stretch to imagine that genes could also influence political attitudes. Also at play are nurture issues, such a person’s family and life experiences. For example, registered lobbyist Woody Overton, Ph.D., (B.A. ’69) says his political beliefs were influenced by his experiences protesting the Vietnam War and later being drafted. While there are no absolutes in human behavior, Miller says, the focus is instead on propensities. “Most researchers, including those who have linked genes to certain ways of thinking, believe that politics is driven by both our genetic predispositions and environment.”

Thinkers vs. feelers

Personality traits have been used in recent elections as a Rosetta stone to interpret the effectiveness of campaign messaging. In the 2008 Minnesota senatorial election between Al Franken and Norm Coleman, pollster Mark Mellman used questions from personality tests to split voters into two groups: thinkers and feelers. Noting that Franken trailed Coleman by seven points among thinkers, Franken’s campaign changed its message to focus more on facts. It was a tight race, but in the end, Franken came out on top. “The message of Mellman’s work is that our personalities are important in our decision-making,” Miller says. “So our personalities affect our preferences for jobs, movies, music, recreation and each other.” So, Miller says, there’s no reason to assume personalities couldn’t also affect the kinds of messages and candidates people find appealing.

While people’s personalities factor in how they make decisions, partisanship is the most critical factor in affecting choice. Candidates’ positions and their images run a far second and third. “In every election cycle, the electorate is focused on a few—generally three—defining issues,” says Brad Scott (M.A. ’98) president and principal of B.M. Scott and Associates, a public affairs firm that specializes in real estate and business development. “They could be feelings, like hope and change, or they could be factual, such as gas prices, debt and so on.” Scott is a former deputy chief of staff for Sen. Kit Bond. “Sometimes the electorate wants a nanny—think Bill Clinton when he said, ‘I feel your pain’—or they want a sheriff, like George W. Bush,” he says. “And sometimes people want someone with American Idol charisma, like Barack Obama.”

For years, political researchers have thought of people as either emotional or rational, as if the two are distinct. But Miller says this is a naïve perspective. The truth is that a person’s emotional system and processing system are not distinct. “How we feel affects how we think about things,” she says. “This is called motivated reasoning—when people insist on something regardless of the facts, or they evaluate incoming information based on prior feelings.”

For example, if you don’t like a candidate and you hear negative news about her, you will likely believe it. But if you support the candidate, you simply think this is incorrect information, and you dismiss the message. Miller says the research about where the tipping point is shows that it takes a lot of negative information to get a person to the point that he or she reverses positions. To switch horses midstream, voters have to hear repeated negative messages, and they have to be based on fact.

Celebrities vs. friends

Endorsements are an oft-used political tool in the march to sway voters. Hollywood actors, prominent athletes and politicians fill the space behind the podium in direct line of the camera’s eye. How much do these endorsements influence voters? To answer this question, Miller is conducting an experiment to measure the significance of endorsements. Her argument is that the source’s credibility matters more for an endorsement. “I trust Michael Jordan when it comes to athletic shoes, maybe even deodorant,” she says. “But I don’t trust him as much when it comes to politics as I would a politician or news personality because their level of knowledge is different.”

Candidates get media attention for endorsements, but Miller says she doesn’t think the endorsements have as much effect on votes as candidates would like. And part of that is credibility. Because you trust your best friend, he or she might be a bigger influence on your vote than Donald Trump.

Words vs. movement

Body language often conveys more than words. Take for example when incumbent George H.W. Bush famously looked at his watch during a 1992 presidential debate—a move that viewers interpreted as indifference. Annie Presley (M.P.A. ’95) is a senior policy advisor at Bryan Cave, a business and litigation firm. She says Bush hurt his campaign with that seemingly subtle move everyone noticed. “That’s the kind of stuff that will make or break a candidate with undecided voters,” Presley says.

Some credit President Bush’s body language in the debate with contributing to his loss. “Body language consists of subconscious cues that can tell us what an individual really thinks,” Scott says. “They can be devastating to anyone who doesn’t have command over the cues they’re sending.”

Miller agrees body language is important. She says politicians must convince voters they don’t just share their preferences, but that they’re also trustworthy, reliable and honest. “One way to do that is through body language,” Miller says. “We heard that about George W. Bush. People said things like, ‘Oh, I want to have a beer with him.’ And it seems strange to most pundits that voters would care about something like that when it comes to their president.” But, Miller says, people want to know that the person in charge of their lives, their country, is someone they can relate to.

Independents vs. everyone

If you’re trying to change someone’s mind, where do you start? (Remember, punching him or her isn’t an option.) One of the challenges for candidates, Miller says, is connecting with people who might be willing to change their minds. So many times, she says, candidates are talking to people who are already on their side.

It may be harder to change peoples’ minds—or even to reach them—than in times past, simply because it’s too easy for people to tune out the candidates. Voters are in control of their own social media outlets, who they listen to and who they tune out. They can choose to watch FOX, MSNBC or CNN or any other news outlet to filter their news through a perspective that matches their worldview.

An elusive group politicians want to wrangle votes from is Independents—this group is a key factor elections. In 2011, the Pew Research Center reported the highest percentage of people who identified as Idependents since party identification was first measured in the 1930s. The research showed 34 percent of people identified as Democrat, 34 percent identified as Independent, and 28 percent identified as Republican. An important note: more Independents say they lean toward the Republican Party. So why not identify as a Republican? “People are sickened by the antics of both parties, and they don’t want to align with anyone,” Scott says. “Some Independents think they’re being thoughtful or open-minded. Some Independents don’t want to align. Some Independents are conflict-averse.” About 60 percent of Independent voters lean toward a party. Another 10 percent are apolitical citizens with no interest in politics.

From personality traits to partisanship—all of these things affect the voters’ decisions. While Nov. 6 is weeks away, you may know whom you’re voting for, but do you know why? Perhaps you read an article that influenced you, or you were moved by the words of a trusted friend. Or maybe you don’t know. You can’t explain it, but you know your candidate is the best person for the job. And that’s a good enough reason to get out and vote.

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