Emotional Politics and the Democratic Party: A Way Forward

The election of 2016 represented the resurgence of emotional politics as a viable political strategy. Emotional, rally-based politics was the dominant political style of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; however, beginning in the 1920s, mass media and professional advertising rendered it obsolete. In 2016, both the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns used emotional, rally-based politics to stunning effect, outperforming (dollar for dollar) the advertising-based strategies of their opponents. Emotional politics was not the only reason, or the most important one, for Trump’s election, but it is worth studying by the Democratic Party as a low-cost strategy that has the potential to increase supporter intensity and voter turnout, particularly at the local level and in red districts where traditional strategies are less viable.

Emotional Politics in American History

The emotionally-charged rallies that buoyed the candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are not a new phenomenon in American politics. Rather, they represent the unexpected return of an old political style, one that dominated American politics, particularly on the Left, from the 1880s to the 1920s. My research documents this political style and explains how it changed American politics during that period.

Before the 1870s, presidential candidates were expected to be emotionally remote from voters in order to avoid being unduly influenced by them; presidential contenders did not campaign for office (party apparatus ran the campaigns instead) and had little contact with voters. In the late nineteenth century, however, many candidates adopted a new, uniquely emotional style of public speaking known as “personal magnetism.” The most successful of these candidates, former Nebraska congressman William Jennings Bryan, won the 1896 Democratic presidential nomination largely on the strength of a single charismatic speech at the national convention; he earned 47% of the general election vote and went on to be nominated two more times. These charismatic candidates took advantage of the nation’s new railroad network to travel the country, giving hundreds of short speeches to groups of voters. These speaking tours were organized in a specific way: a brass band would warm up the audience; the candidate would then deliver an inspiring, emotionally-charged speech; finally, the candidate would shake hands with as many voters as possible. Essentially, these charismatic speaking tours pioneered the modern candidate-centered political rally.

It is unclear whether emotional politics expanded the electorate or increased votes for a candidate such as Bryan. What emotional politics did do was to intensify the commitment of voters who were already inclined to support a particular candidate. Democratic voters who wrote to Bryan compared him to Moses and Jesus Christ; so many of them named their children after him that the campaign had to assign Bryan’s daughter the job of responding to their letters. In practice, this supporter commitment translated to a nationwide army of extremely motivated campaign volunteers, many giving up their paid work to volunteer full-time for Bryan. Traditional candidates who relied on party apparatus to sustain their campaigns did not receive such support. Bryan’s large numbers of volunteers helped offset his five-to-one financial disadvantage in 1896; despite this financial disparity, he lost by fewer than four points.

Charismatic politics changed the culture of American leadership; it brought Americans into the political process in a new and more emotional way. Charismatic leaders such as Bryan were only successful when they made themselves emotionally available to their supporters and when they tailored their policies to voter demands. Ever since, candidates have had to shake hands, kiss babies, give speeches, and actively court voter support in order to win elections. Nevertheless, in the 1920s the magnetic speaking style and the in-person rally largely died out with the advent of mass media (the radio) and professional advertising. Over the past ninety years, politicians who use media and advertising strategies have consistently defeated those who rely only on emotional politics and in-person rallies. Since these advertising strategies are costly, that has generally meant that better-funded candidates have outperformed those with fewer financial resources.

The shocking results of the 2016 election, however, upended this political calculus. Two candidates who drew record crowds to their political rallies — Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders — were able to outperform much better-funded candidates in both the primary and the general elections. Both Trump and Sanders successfully adapted the rally-based campaign for the modern political setting, though in different ways. Trump was able to turn his rallies into media events through skillful manipulation of the media, chiefly by making false promises to journalists about the newsworthiness of the rallies and by making outrageous statements which appeared to be gaffes but actually served to keep the media fixated on his campaign. Sanders, on the other hand, was able to turn rally-based politics into a powerful small-dollar fundraising machine through skillful use of social media. The 2016 election demonstrates that the era of emotional, rally-based politics has returned. Accordingly, Democrats should pay close attention to the lessons of a century ago.

Why Emotional Politics Can Help Democrats Win Elections

It is widely acknowledged within the Democratic Party that the Party’s largest obstacle in winning elections is voter turnout. To restate the fundamental problem: more Americans support Democrats than Republicans, but Republican voters are more politically engaged than are Democratic voters. Democrats are able to keep pace with Republicans in presidential elections when the presidential candidate energizes Democratic voters, but in midterm and special elections Democratic turnout drops off sharply, enabling Republicans to maintain control of Congress and of state and local governments. A strategy is needed, then, that focuses on intensifying the commitment of voters who already lean Democratic, with the goal of reversing the intensity gap — making Democrats more likely to vote than Republicans, not less.

The emotional politics of the turn of the century, adapted to modern political conditions, can be a key part of such a strategy. The lesson of the age of charisma is that emotional politics are the best way to energize voters and intensify their commitments, and that there is no substitute for in-person contact between a charismatic politician and voters. Just as in 1896, the charismatic campaign rally remains the most efficient and effective means of accomplishing this goal. The chief criticism of rally-based politics has been that it is not as efficient as a strategy that uses mass media advertising. However, while advertising-based politics may reach more voters, its influence is more diffuse; voters are generally more inspired by a rally or a handshake than by a television commercial, and are thus more likely to become volunteers and to vote on election day.

A common misconception is that emotional politics is most effective in presidential or other major national races; in fact, the opposite is the case. Local races in red districts, where few traditional resources are available to a candidate, constitute an excellent proving ground for emotional strategies. In such races, the likelihood of victory using traditional advertising and media strategies is low; accordingly, there is little downside in using these races to test emotional approaches. Additionally, the potential payoff in such races is higher than in national campaigns. Since emotional politics tends to generate committed volunteers, just a few such volunteers can make an enormous difference in a local or state legislative race, rendering a candidate surprisingly competitive even in a red district.

An Emotional Politics for the Twenty-First Century: Recommendations

1. Focus campaigns on emotional appeals rather than policy-based arguments. Voters tend to choose a candidate on the basis of issue positions. However, issue positions alone do not create an intensity of commitment in voters; voters who support a candidate only on the issues will be less likely to vote, and much less likely to volunteer, than Democrats would like. The way for Democrats to reverse the intensity gap is to embrace emotional appeals rather than focusing on educating voters about policy. Facts may convince a voter to support your candidate, but only emotions can convince him to vote and campaign for her. This is as true for local campaigns as for national ones, and for seemingly hopeless campaigns as for seemingly easy ones.

2. Encourage and help candidates to become more charismatic. Once a campaign accepts that emotional appeals should be central to its strategy, it faces the dilemma of how to maximize the emotional appeal of its candidate. While some candidates are impossibly dull and others resistant to advice, most are open to and capable of connecting emotionally with voters. Contrary to what self-help books (and some campaign consultants) will tell you, there is no universal formula for increasing a candidate’s charisma. Charisma is fundamentally situational, and every candidate must follow a different path to achieving it, based on the candidate’s personality gender, race, region, and the particular mood of the voters. Rather than offering a priori prescriptions, staffers should observe candidates interacting with voter and offer them suggestions on how to adapt their unique personalities to move and inspire audiences. Some general principles apply, however. Candidates should appear unscripted and authentic; they should look for opportunities to engage in political theater, particularly those created by the news cycle and by opposing campaigns; and they should seek to mirror the emotions of their constituents — chiefly frustration, anger, and hope.

3. Make candidate-centered rallies the centerpiece of modern campaigns, particularly for local races and in deep red districts. Modern campaigns often utilize rallies, but they generally go about those rallies in the wrong way. First, rallies are often advertised chiefly to party stalwarts; they should instead be advertised to less-committed voters, since the goal is to create new activists out of apathetic Democrats, not simply to energize existing volunteers. Second, rallies often focus on fundraising; they are most effective when they are free (and can be monetized after the fact by collecting attendees’ contact information). Third, rallies often bring in a major “headliner” from outside the district to fire up the crowd. This has the unintended effect of diminishing the impact of the candidate herself; even if she delivers a charismatic performance, she will be overshadowed by the headliner and voters will imprint their emotional on that national figure instead — and will consequently lose interest in the campaign when the headliner leaves town. The purpose of the rally is not to raise money or to energize a party; it should be to connect the voters directly with the local candidate in an emotional way in order to generate votes and volunteers. Accordingly, rallies should follow the formula developed by charismatic movements in the 1890s: they should begin with a musical performance; continue with a deeply charismatic speech by the local candidate actually on the ballot; and conclude with a handshaking opportunity for voters to meet that candidate, in order to forge an enduring connection between voter and politician.

4. Use social media techniques to broadcast and monetize candidates’ charisma. Rallies are the centerpiece of a successful charismatic campaign, but media techniques can be used to multiply their effects beyond the immediate audience. This can be achieved in two ways: by increasing media coverage of the rallies (usually by the candidate’s making them newsworthy in some way) and by mastering viral marketing, broadcasting the candidate’s charisma to potential small-dollar donors outside the candidate’s district. In small, rural media markets, the second strategy is the most important. All contact between a candidate and the voters should be videotaped so that excerpts that show off the candidate’s charisma can be repackaged online and promoted via social media; no expense should be spared on this front, even in small races with few resources.

5. Promote Emotional Politics via State and National Party Organizations. State parties and the Democratic National Committee can promote emotional politics by creating infrastructure to support it. They can deploy “charisma consultants” who can help individual candidates become more emotionally appealing to voters. They can provide funding for videotaping even local candidates in red districts, recognizing that any candidate can “go viral” at any time, raising large sums of money and putting unexpected races into play. They can provide staff support for viral marketing of charismatic interactions between candidates and voters. Finally, they can encourage the very idea of emotional politics as a powerful tool for winning elections, particularly in areas where traditional strategies are unlikely to succeed, and can use red districts as testing grounds for emotional strategies.

Emotional politics represents a way forward for the Democratic Party, particularly in difficult-to-win districts and in local races. By studying the lessons of turn-of-the-century American politics, Democrats can expand the map of competitive races, increase voter turnout, and gain an army of committed volunteers, without reallocating enormous sums of money to emotional strategies. As the 2016 election showed, emotions are the future of American politics; it is time for Democrats to get on board.

Jeremy C. Young is an assistant professor of history at Dixie State University and the author of The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870–1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2017).