WINNING POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS: THINKING ABOUT HUMAN MOTIVATION
This writing is unusually long for publication in a blog but making it that long seemed necessary to render it more cohesive. It is intended as a “think piece,” so do take your time and think about it as you go. The behavioral model presented is original with me so far as I know. I do think it can be useful. H.R.
Now that the primary season is over we might pause and think about what happened. We are going to suggest that candidates and their campaign planners need a more effective model of human behavior that will help them get beyond the usual approach to campaigns. One such approach, which may provide insight into this year’s presidential campaign, is included here. Going into this year’s Democratic primary season, most political experts would have guessed that Hillary Clinton would triumph, and she did, but only after a long struggle with the 74 year old political pied piper from Vermont, the “democratic socialist,” Bernie Sanders. Turning to the Republicans, if we had consulted a panel of experts, going into the primary season, few would have guessed that Donald Trump, the multiply married, businessman-talk show host with no political experience would triumph with the help of working class male voters.
One conclusion that one might draw is that, electoral politics is simply unpredictable, that there is just no way of knowing how the voters will respond. But, the candidates did not believe that. Each of them hired experts who could help them target voters. Each of them had a plan to target the particular groups of voters in each primary and caucus that would lead to their own victory. Of the seventeen candidates who entered the Republican primaries, sixteen failed, most, miserably. Only Donald Trump gained sufficient voters to win and, now, in the campaign for the general election, his campaign is struggling. Obviously something is missing.
Those candidates could clearly have benefited from a simple model of human behavior that would have made it possible for them to plan their campaigns so that a sufficient number of people would have to vote for them and not vote for the others. So, let us depart, just briefly, from a more typical discussion of politics and think a bit about what motivates those political actives and primary and caucus voters. Below is a shortcut theory about human behavior. It could provide campaign planners more insight into the behavior of voters and allow future campaign planners to be more effective (You might also think about what this explains about your own behavior up till now.).
A shortcut theory of human behavior: As we grow from infancy into adulthood, because the internal conflicts that we feel can be so painful, we quickly develop a constant drive to reduce them as much as we can. To facilitate that reduction, each of us creates a kind of personal universe. We create a smaller more controllable world inside the larger one, and, we use everything in that universe to help us keep internal conflict down. It is logical to do that because we all need the love, stability and predictability that the larger, uncontrollable world cannot provide. Think of the personal universe as a kind of oval with an outer barrier. Inside that protective boundary is our immediate family, our friendships, a small number of human connections from our various schools, our work, perhaps our church, and, perhaps, a significant other. We also can make life more passable inside that universe by using tobacco, alcohol, or other substances. Those things become part of our universe (One reason that people may have such difficulty giving up smoking is that smoking has become part of that conflict reducing universe that they have created.). Once this universe is formed, we, for the most part, live our lives rocketing around inside it, and, we will work continuously to keep that personal universe intact and functioning because it helps accomplish our drive to keep inner conflict at the lowest level possible (That also means that most voters, whatever they say, will resist change if that change will upset the universe that each is working so hard to maintain. Candidates need to deal with change very carefully. Promising change often succeeds only if the voters believe that the proposed changes will effect others and not them.).
As individuals, the truth is that it is really difficult in all but the most ideal circumstances to keep our levels of internal conflict at a comfortable level. That is particularly true if our parents and other family members are angry or are simply not loving or not demonstrative. Keeping internal conflict down is also more difficult if we are undereducated, live in poverty, or must survive in a dangerous neighborhood where conflict and physical danger are ever present. Our natural reaction to this intense discomfort will be to be angry. But being angry with those around us will tend to be counterproductive (People faced with anger will either retaliate or will withdraw.). If we can’t safely be angry with those in the small universe we’ve created, our mind may find symbols (often individuals or ideas) outside our universe at which we can project anger, or love. People are angry already. The mind provides them with things at which to be angry.
So, to sum up: We each create a personal universe and we use that universe to reduce inner conflict as much as we can. So, any time, all the time, we will think or do the thing that most reduces inner conflict. So politically, if we can assume that people (voters), will be most attracted to the candidate who most reduces internal conflict for them, then we can begin to predict human behavior, and for us, political behavior. If a campaign can reduce levels of internal conflict in voters out there more than the competing candidates, they gain a powerful advantage; they will win!
The average person now has very little connection with any political party and the average person feels very little personal connection with our current government. What they do have are hazy images left over from high school, plus what they hear from news sources, and, what they hear from friends. They may have no idea what the government does and may not have the energy or interest that would allow them find out. Instead, they may just come to assume that the government is doing nothing, or, that the government, unfairly, is doing things for other people who do not deserve to be helped. So, when candidates step up who claim that they can fix the system and really cause the undeserving to lose out, it is easy for them to function as anger or love symbols for those politically unconnected people.
If as we suggest above, the average person has little connection with the parties, then why, we may reasonably ask, why do so many of those people still identify with one of the two major parties? Several studies back in the 1950’s and 1960’s (When such studies were much less expensive to do.), suggested that people in this country came to identify with a major party at a much younger age than did people in Europe. And, therein, lies a clue. Political party identification in this country is often made in childhood. Imagine a six or seven or eight year old child coming home from school and asking, “Mother, are we Democrats or Republicans?” The mother answers that, “We’re Republicans.” Then the child goes off to school knowing that she is a Republican, and that is all she needs to know. She knows who her parents are, she knows where they live, she knows what church they go to, and that she’s a Republican. That identity becomes part of her personal universe, so that years later, having had no need to know more than the label, she will pronounce herself, a Republican.
For a candidate, think about how helpful this whole conflict reduction concept can be! Most politicians do assume that the voters are at least somewhat predictable. Their campaigns carefully study how their party’s voters have voted in the past. Candidates try to come up with issues that will arouse their voters enough to get them to the polls. But, in a sense they are still flying blind. If, instead, a candidate could calculate the number of voters needed to win and then try to do only the things that would reduce conflict in those voters. That, done insightfully, in co-ordination with a more traditional campaign, should virtually guarantee victory.
So, to come back to the current presidential campaign, think about how what we are seeing supports the “conflict reduction concept”. Donald Trump did calculate correctly that he could reduce conflict in dissatisfied and angry white males by becoming a spokesman for their anger. That worked in the primaries and caucuses where that limited group of voters could make him the winner. What he should have done, would have been to realize how reducing conflict for that small group would increase internal conflict for almost everyone else, and, have planned accordingly. He did not and the result is that his campaign is predictably failing. Hillary Clinton is not a great conflict reducer as an individual, but, she is benefiting from a really competent professional campaign. And, by presenting herself as competent alternative to the conflict inducing Donald Trump, she can, despite her flaws, be the candidate who most reduces conflict after all.
Finally, there are some things that this behavioral model suggests:
1) People will be much more conservative than their rhetoric suggests in the sense that they will resist change. That will often be true even if the changes suggested would benefit them. Candidates who believe what their voters say about wanting change will predictably fail.
2) That resistance will be true whether voters say that they are liberal or say that they are conservative. There is little reason to believe that liberals are anymore flexible or open minded than are conservatives. They all will resist change (Why? Because nearly any change will upset the individual universes they have so carefully constructed and increase the level of internal conflict they have been working so hard to keep down.).
3) Institutions change much more slowly than individuals, so it will usually be best to work with a few influential individuals and let them work on changing institutions. (Why? Because for an institution to change, so many individuals have to make changes that increase the level of conflict that they feel, that voluntary change within institutions will be difficult or at best, glacial (Assume that institutional personnel will work together to resist the change.).
4) If, as a candidate, you can get yourself established as a love symbol for voters out there, good for you. Because they are using you as an object upon which project love, they will often stick with you when others fall away. But, don’t be fooled (Donald Trump keeps believing he can win because so many worshipful fans show up at his rallies,), you still have to have the numbers and those people who seem love you won’t be enough.
5) You can gain followers by turning your opponent into an anger symbol but the people who respond to that symbolism probably wouldn’t vote for your opponent anyway. If you are Donald Trump and concentrate on making Hillary Clinton seem evil, you are probably activating people who would never have voted for her and would have voted for you anyway. You need to win over others, lots of others.
6) Once you are in office, if you can establish your name in your district or your state, or the country (often through effective outreach and casework), you will have a tremendous advantage over challengers. You and your name become part of the universes of all those voters and their resisting change will work to your benefit. It’s unfair but it is what it is!!
That’s it . . . . Back to the campaigns!