Rocking The Vote: Is Election Psychology Flash Over Substance?

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In the primaries, supporters of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders had something in common. They were motivated by their candidate´s energy and enthusiasm. Both candidates routinely had rallies that looked and felt like rock concerts. Yet in the general election season, Hillary Clinton began rocking the vote with real rock concerts with performers such as Katy Perry and Beyoncé. [1] Why is this important? Because election psychology encompasses a combination of momentum and math. Vitality and votes.

In the final weekend stretch, both Trump and Clinton are riling up their crowds with energetic campaign speeches, filled with enthusiasm and passionate optimism. Clinton even braved inclement weather over the weekend to proclaim an impassioned message at a campaign stop in Florida on Saturday until she was literally rained out, forced to cut her speech short by a downpour. [2]

Indeed, many voters have admitted being transfixed and positively influenced by candidate speeches this election cycle, swept away by emotion instead of logic. How does this work?

Transfixed by Excitement: Momentum Over Math

When you grab a Snickers bar or a tabloid paper at the grocery store check out counter, you are demonstrating the power of emotion over logic. (This is yet another reason to use self-checkout.) How do you justify your cash register purchase? Is sugar truly the snack of champions? Do you really have to keep up with the Kardashians?

Emotion can overshadow logic in politics as well. We all have the capacity to be influenced by attractive-sounding arguments delivered with gusto and confidence—even when the ideas themselves are contrary to our better judgment or would not make sense if they were delivered in a different medium—or by a different candidate. Sometimes we end up viewing impressive candidates positively even when the concepts expressed are contrary to established facts, as revealed by media fact checking.

Star Struck: The Celebrity Effect [3]

Donald Trump capitalized on his celebrity during this campaign season, frequently insisting that the media point the cameras not at him, but at the crowds attending his events, in order to showcase his popularity. Sure enough, research shows that star power can leave fans star struck. Here is how it happens.

Some people find individuals attractive simply because everyone else does. Termed the celebrity effect, this phenomenon causes peer esteem to be viewed as desirable as wealth or physical attractiveness. [4] It has been demonstrated in mate copying, where mating interest is influenced by the opinion and attention of others. [5] Peer attention can compensate for a lack of physical attractiveness, and can also create a perception of desirability, regardless of wealth. [6]

Yet beware of flash over substance. If you are impressed, ask yourself why and by what? Is it the candidate himself or herself, the reaction of the crowd, or the content of the communication?

From the Courtroom to the Boardroom—to the Situation Room

As a career trial attorney, I see this dynamic every day in the courtroom—jurors are often influenced more through emotion than argument. Donald Trump capitalized on this phenomenon in the corporate boardroom, facilitating the “art of the deal”—which became the title of his famous book.

The same principle operates on the campaign trail to the situation room. So as you prepare to vote on Tuesday (if you have not already), if you were dazzled by a candidate´s performance at a rally, town hall, or debate, consider whether you would be equally impressed had you merely read a transcript of the speech without the smooth oration and standing ovation.

The Transcript Test: Examining the Text of Trump on the Stump

What would the transcript test reveal about Trump and Clinton? A contrast in both style and substance. Trump´s transcript would be full of sound bites on their way to becoming headlines. His messages are streamlined, simple, and to the point, frequently repeating phrases for emphasis (and perhaps to buy time as he considers what to say next). Yet no doubt some of his words and phrases might make you wince, even seeing them on paper.

Clinton´s transcript, on the other hand, will be full of substance, but some of her critics would argue that her speeches do not provide a captivating read, comparatively. Even the text of Trump on the stump is likely to gain far more attention because it will be provocative and viscerally reactive, whether you find it appealing or offensive.

Star Power or Staying Power

Simply put, have we tired of the candidates? Not likely—in terms of media appeal. What they will mean on Tuesday will remain to be seen.


[3] Some of the research and examples in this column are taken from Dr. Patrick´s latest book, Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Other Toxic People in Every Area of Your Life (St. Martin´s Press, 2015).

[4] Michael R. Cunningham and Anita P. Barbee, “Prelude to a Kiss: Nonverbal Flirting, Opening Gambits, and Other Communication Dynamics in the Initiation of Romantic Relationships,” in Handbook of Relationship Initiation, eds. Susan Sprecher, Amy Wenzel, and John Harvey (New York: Psychology Press, 2008), 97–120 (104).

[5] Cunningham and Barbee, “Prelude to a Kiss,” 104.

[6] Cunningham and Barbee, “Prelude to a Kiss,” 104.