Persuasion and the Presidential Primaries

March 6, 2008  

Although I rarely write about politics, the current Presidential campaigns are giving us some interesting examples of psychological manipulation.

For example, this morning’s newspaper’s headline was, “(Obama) says Clinton’s attacks paved way for her big night.” It is believed that Hillary’s negative campaign helped her win key states.

Why does mudslinging work? Why do people use it so much?

I believe it is because of two important forces:

People play it safe when it comes to increasing gains: Obama’s platform is about change. Although people claim they want change, in reality (as I wrote in another blog entry), most play it safe when it comes to increasing gains. The status quo wins out most of the time. If change is to prevail, people need a clear picture of the future AND they must believe that that future is achievable. Although Obama is inspiring, he has been criticized for not providing a clear and consistent vision of the future and for lacking a compelling roadmap for getting there. Then again, I’m not sure any candidate has done a good job at this.

People will take risks to minimize their losses: When the feasibility the “gain/change” comes into question, people start focusing on their fears. Hillary has been playing this card consistently. She has challenged Obama’s know-how and suggested that everything will go wrong if we vote in an inexperienced President. As an example, she focused in on Obama’s apparently “two-faced” position on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Voters began to wonder, “Change is good, but is it worth the risk?”

What would I advise Obama and Clinton to do differently?

Stop the mudslinging. Although these negative campaigns may help the individual candidates during the primaries, it will only bolster support for McCain, the de facto Republican candidate. They may win the battle but lose the war in November.

Meet people where they are. As reported in that earlier blog entry, in an obese society, most people will choose “lose your gut fast” over “get six pack abs.” It’s hard for people to envision a Utopian world that seems so far away from the current state of affairs. If you want people to change, three things must be in place:

  1. People must be uncomfortable with the current situation.
  2. They must see a better future.
  3. They must believe that that better future is achievable with a reasonable amount of “investment.”

Point #3 is probably the most important (and overlooked) part of the process. This leads to the last recommendation.

Create a clear, compelling roadmap for the future. Whatever you stand for, make sure you communicate HOW you will get there. Be consistent and stay focused. And don’t shoot for the moon. The candidates can talk about grand aspirations. But they should emphasize smaller, more immediate steps that feel like they can be implemented. A believable future is as important as a desirable future.

These are valuable lessons that can be applied to any professional or personal situation. Organizations should watch the political world to learn more about human behavior and motivation. It is a great public experiment on a large scale.

P.S. I say this with tongue in cheek…but the Obama vs Clinton campaign feels like the Mac vs PC debate. Obama has the cool, trendy and wildly popular feel of a Mac. Clinton has the history of being an active First Lady (with Bill) and yet is less warm and fuzzy. Maybe Obama’s campaign should create a viral Mac vs PC spoof for YouTube. Or maybe one already exists.

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One Response to “Persuasion and the Presidential Primaries”

  1. Antony Woods on March 8th, 2008 5:48 am

    Hi Steve,

    Election candidates seem to feel that people are doing them a favor by voting for them. They behave as if people voting for them will make them happy. They thank people for voting for them, as if people are having happy thoughts about them when giving them the responsibility of President. Happiness comes from knowing that you have done a good job, not on how popular you are.

    Just my 2 cents. Regards / Antony.