The GOP is in trouble. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump lags behind the Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton in the national polls. Which polls, you may ask? All of them. Even more troubling for those on the political right, a landslide for Clinton in November could shift the political landscape well beyond the White House. Concern is growing in the GOP that down-ballot Republicans—from senators and representatives in Congress all the way down to local dogcatchers—might be swept aside if voters favoring Clinton turn out en masse and vote straight ticket. Can Republicans hold the Senate? What about the House? Can anything be done? Well, one option is to push ahead while ignoring the candidates. All of them.
In recent years, in both controlled experiments and by examining troves of detailed election data, psychologists, behavioral economists and other scholars have made important discoveries about what sways voters to pick one candidate or party over another. Some of this research has looked past the candidates themselves, instead examining factors that might at first seem irrelevant, but upon closer inspection appear to correlate with or even cause a voting preference. The results, to say the least, have been rather unexpected. For example, a study of UK polling data newly published in the British Journal of Political Science found that for the Tories, size matters: “taller individuals are more likely to support the Conservative Party, support conservative policies and vote Conservative,” the researchers noted, adding that “a one-inch increase in height increases support for Conservatives by 0.6 per cent.”
Elongating the electorate isn’t exactly a workable strategy. Instead, what should interest right-of-center politicians on this side of the Atlantic are the discoveries associated with subliminal persuasion. Priming, as explained by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their popular 2008 book Nudge, “refers to the somewhat mysterious workings of the Automatic System of the brain. Research shows that subtle influences can increase the ease with which certain information comes to mind. . . . Sometimes the merest hint of an idea or concept will trigger an association that can stimulate action. These ‘primes’ occur in social situations, and their effects can be surprisingly powerful.” In other words, people, places and things, even if they are in the background, have a remarkable and often unconscious impact on choice.
Another scholar who has contributed important findings in this field is the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. He described several examples of priming in his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow. In one such study of voting on school funding, for example, researchers found that support for more funds was higher in polling stations that were located inside schools. Location mattered. Being at the site of what the money would support influenced some voters whether they realized it or not. And there’s more: ideas alone can prime voters. Another study found that support for more school funding was also higher among voters who were simply shown pictures of classrooms and lockers ahead of voting. The participants did not need to be physically standing in the classroom for the effect to take hold; the images were enough. Nor was the impact trivial. “The effect of the images was larger than the difference between parents and other voters!” Kahneman noted.
Priming has been shown in studies to influence everything from locomotion speed to spending habits—and, yes, voting preference. What has been discovered so far—and the field is still relatively new—has been surprising and thought-provoking. It has also been unsettling to the idea that people are the commanders-in-chief of their own choices. As Kahneman explained, “Studies of priming effects have yielded discoveries that threaten our self-image as conscious and autonomous authors of our judgments and our choices. . . . We now know the effects of priming can reach into every corner of our lives.” Moreover, recent research into similar forms of “nudging” has shown that these cues are effective even when rendered transparent, even when individuals know they are being purposefully influenced.
So, culling through the available research, here are five ways Republicans might want to consider priming voters ahead of election day.
1. Fifty Stars and Thirteen Stripes
In 2011, three scholars from the University of Chicago, Cornell University and Hebrew University published a scorcher of a research paper in the journal Psychological Science. People’s political judgments, the researchers claimed, could be influenced toward supporting Republican causes by an item readily available in any local Wal-Mart: the American flag. In a set of controlled experiments conducted between 2008 and 2010, the researchers exposed some participants to images of The Stars and Stripes—for example, a 72-by-45 pixel flag in the corner of the computer screen while taking a survey. When participants were then given a subsequent survey to measure attitudes toward political issues, the results revealed that the flag-primed participants skewed markedly rightward over a control group. There was “a significant increase in participants’ Republican voting intentions, voting behavior, political beliefs, and implicit and explicit attitudes.” Exposure to the American flag, the researchers concluded, “significantly shifted both Democratic and Republican participants’ beliefs, attitudes, and voting behavior toward Republicanism.” What’s more, some of the shifts seemed to stick around for up to eight months after the initial priming. “This prolonged influence represents one of the most durable priming effects in the cognitive sciences literature,” they wrote.
Here, it seems, is a remedy for Republican woes: line the streets with American flags and Old Glory will raise support for the Grand Old Party. Alas, it’s not so simple. A different set of researchers then tried to replicate the astonishing results, publishing their work in 2014 in the journal Social Psychology. It didn’t go as expected. They failed to get the same results.
The original three researchers, however, were unwilling to declare a total defeat. They responded that “[a] different political atmosphere, different subject pools, and different states of mind separate the original and the replication attempt. For these reasons, we view this as a conceptual, and not a direct, replication.” Facts had changed, they argued. Moreover, since the original study was published additional work had been ongoing to identify the precise conditions in which people are primed by the flag, to what extent and for how long. The Star Spangled Banner thesis may yet survive in some form.
“Since the Civil War, Americans have been a flag-oriented people,” Samuel Huntington wrote. “The Stars and Stripes has the status of a religious icon and is a more central symbol of national identity for Americans than their flags are for peoples of other nations.” All true, but more to the point, flags are low cost and abundant. The United States imported $4.4 million worth of American flags last year alone! Lining the streets in red, white and blue could be accomplished relatively easily. If there’s even a minute, highly qualified chance flags might work as a prime that shifts voters rightward, Republicans might consider running this idea up the flagpole.
2. Keep the End in Mind
The Republican National Convention in Cleveland was a lively event. But amid the major key, allegro brillante trumpeting that characterized much of the oration in the Quicken Loans Arena there were also, to the keen listener, a few melancholy notes interspersed. On the second night, for example, businessman Andy Wist blurted out toward the end of his speech, “I’m not going to be around forever, and neither will you be.” As the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri pithily tweeted at the time, “mortality yay.” Wist’s wistful memento mori was an odd, downbeat moment in what should have been an uplifting celebration. It was more in the mood of Hamlet, when the occasion clearly called for Henry V. Yet alas, poor Yorick, Wist might have been on to something.
In their book The Worm at the Core (reviewed in the Sept-Oct 2015 issue of the National Interest), Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon and Tom Pyszczynski described their research on how reminders of death influence decision making. In one such experiment, participants were asked to select between three hypothetical political candidates. One candidate signaled a commitment to accomplishing goals. Another emphasized shared responsibility. A final candidate was presented as “charismatic, bold, self-confident, and emphasized the group’s greatness.” A portion of these participants were reminded of death before selecting among the candidates. The results were astonishing—an eightfold increase in votes for the charismatic candidate in the group that was reminded of death over the control group. “Intimations of mortality amplify the allure of charismatic leaders,” the researchers explained.
This same result played out with flesh-and-blood candidates as well, Greenberg, Solomon and Pyszczynski noted. In an experiment held before the 2004 U.S. presidential election, participants who had been reminded of death reported by an almost 3-to-1 margin that they would vote for President George W. Bush over Senator John Kerry. At the time, the researchers explained, President Bush was seen as the “charismatic” candidate purveying the message that “we are divinely ordained to defeat the forces of evil” after the grim shock of September 11, 2001.