Woodrow Wilson, our 26th president, was reelected to a second term in 1916, running on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” (Within a year of his reelection, Wilson got us into the war he had kept us out of.) Anyway, his 1916 reelection was actually quite close, just 277-254 in the Electoral College (which, you perhaps know, is not actually a college in any way nor, you might not know, is it called the Electoral College in the U.S. Constitution).
OK, I’ll stop with the snarky parenthetical asides, and within a couple of paragraphs, I’ll give you a clue why I’m writing about Wilson in 1916.
Wilson was, surprisingly perhaps, beaten badly in 1916 in his own state of New Jersey, of which he had been governor until 1912. He lost by double-digits in certain New Jersey coastal areas that had been hit with a dramatic series of fatal shark attacks. Wilson, as I mentioned, was president at the time, but even if he had still been governor of New Jersey, it might be unfair to blame him for the shark attacks. Still — at least according to a famous political science article titled “The Irrational Electorate” — voters near the New Jersey beaches were highly motivated to vote against Wilson because the shark attacks had occurred on, in some absurd sense, Wilson’s watch.
“The Irrational Electorate” was written by Princeton political scientist Larry M. Bartels and published in “The Wilson Political Quarterly” during the height of the 2008 presidential election season. Since I first read it, I have dug it back out occasionally for a look-over during campaign seasons to remind myself that whatever insanity seems to be occurring is normal, or at least not unprecedented.
In the Year of Trump — and omigod, have you watched that Sarah Palin video? (warning: it’s 20 minutes long) — it may be especially necessary to let go of the belief that citizens make their voting decision on logic backed by facts. But in a few short pages written well before the rise of The Donald , Bartels assured us that many voters spend their precious franchise in strange ways. On the slight chance that you won’t click through and read the Bartels article, a few quotes and examples from the piece:
New Jersey voters’ reaction to shark attacks was dramatic, but hardly anomalous. Throughout the 20th century, presidential candidates from incumbent parties suffered substantial vote losses in states afflicted by droughts or wet spells. [Historian/author Rick] Shenkman argues that “throw the bums out may not be a sophisticated response to adversity but it is a rational one.” However, punishing the president’s party because it hasn’t rained is no more “rational” than kicking the dog after a hard day at work.
There is little doubt that how a candidate looks and sounds is a powerful force affecting voters’ reactions to him or her. Studies have found that in far more than a random number of cases, the taller candidate and/or the better-looking one wins. But a study to which Bartels alludes (and which I wrote at slightly more length about here) found that voters make a judgment about the “competence” of a candidate based on a glimpse of the candidate lasting one one-hundredth of a second, and that judgment is a powerful predictor of a voter’s ultimate choice. “Competence” might be a nifty criterion for choosing one candidate over the other, but not if the impression is based on a fraction of a second’s glimpse of his or her face.
The largest single expense for most modern campaigns is to air television ads, which are not exactly known for their honesty or probative value. In fact, they are notorious for using such tools of persuasion as scary music and manipulated images, not to mention half-truths. Perhaps the impact of TV ads are declining in the online world. But when Bartels wrote in 2008, he summarized some of the then-current research thus:
The ideal of rational voting behavior is further undermined by accumulating evidence that voters can be powerfully swayed by television advertising in the days just before an election. A major study of the 2000 presidential election by Richard Johnston, Michael Hagen, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson tracked prospective voters’ responses to changes in the volume and content of campaign ads as well as to news coverage and other aspects of the national campaign. Their analysis suggested that George W. Bush’s razor-thin victory hinged crucially on the fact that he had more money to spend on television ads in battleground states in the final weeks of the campaign.
A team of scholars from UCLA elaborated on this analysis in an attempt to clarify how long the effects of advertising last. They found that most of the effect of any given ad on voters’ preferences evaporated within one week.
That reminded me of a favorite remark of former U.S. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-MN), whose political career followed his success building the Plywood Minnesota chains, which gave him some marketing experience. He liked to say that the weird thing about politics is that it’s the only business where you have to make all your sales on one day.