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Winning Hearts and Minds: Why Rational Appeals Are Irrational If Your Goal is Winning Elections

Democrats typically bombard voters with laundry lists of issues, facts, figures, and policy positions, while Republicans offer them emotionally compelling appeals, whether to their values, principles, or prejudices.
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Behind every campaign lies a vision of mind -- often implicit, rarely articulated, and generally invisible to the naked eye. Traces of that vision can be seen in everything a campaign does or doesn't do.

The vision of mind that has captured the imagination of Democratic campaign strategists for much of the last 40 years -- a dispassionate mind that makes decisions by weighing the evidence and reasoning to the most valid conclusions -- bears no relation to how the mind and brain actually work. When campaign strategists start from this vision of mind, their candidates typically lose.

Democrats typically bombard voters with laundry lists of issues, facts, figures, and policy positions, while Republicans offer them emotionally compelling appeals, whether to their values, principles, or prejudices. As a result, we have seen only one Democrat re-elected to the White House since Franklin Roosevelt -- Bill Clinton, who, like Roosevelt, understood how to connect with voters emotionally -- and only one Republican fail to do so -- George H.W. Bush, who ran like a Democrat and paid for it.

What's in a Brain?

The questions we ask invariably reflect our own background. I am a scientist who has spent a lifetime studying the way people reveal their personalities, strengths, and vulnerabilities in the stories they tell about themselves and other people. I also led a team of neuroscientists who studied how partisan brains reasoned during the polarized 2004 election. The answer: they didn't. When confronted with compelling negative evidence about their candidate, the brains of Democrats and Republicans registered conflict and distress. Whereas the circuits normally activated during dispassionate reasoning appeared to be in a persistently vegetative state when faced with a reasoning task with negative implications for the partisan's candidate, circuits charged with regulating emotion and dealing with conflict lit up our computer screens like the Fourth of July, firing rockets into reason until our partisans had arrived at emotionally comfortable conclusions.

But my view of the political landscape -- and the way I approach speeches, ads, debates, and other forms of political communication -- also reflects the fact that I am a practicing clinician, who has trained psychologists and psychiatrists for over twenty years in how to understand the nuances of meaning in what people say, do, and feel. In working with patients, if you miss those nuances -- if you misread what they may be trying to communicate, if you misjudge their character, if you don't notice when their emotions, gestures, or tone of voice don't fit what they're saying, if you don't catch the fleeting sadness or anger that lingers on their face for only a few milliseconds as they mention someone or something you might otherwise not know was important -- you lose your patients. Or worse still, you don't.

In politics, if you misread these things, you lose elections.

All in the Networks

Although brain scanning studies sometimes create the impression that thoughts or feelings come and go when one part of the brain "turns on" or another "turns off," the reality is that our brains are nothing but vast networks of neurons that regulate everything we do, think, and feel. Of particular importance for understanding politics are networks of associations: bundles of thoughts, feelings, sounds, images, memories, and emotions that have become linked through experience. People can't tell you much about what's in those networks, how active they are, or what's likely to change them -- the most central determinants of voting behavior -- because they don't have conscious access to them, any more than they can tell you what's going on in their pancreas. They're happy to give you their theories about how their minds work in polls and focus groups, but those theories are just as likely to be wrong as right.

When John Kerry's pollsters chose to avoid "negativity" because voters said they didn't like it, they were asking people conscious questions about unconscious processes. To what extent their respondents just didn't know the power of negative appeals on their own networks or didn't want to admit it to a pollster, a group of strangers in a focus group, or themselves is unclear. But what is clear is that George W. Bush won the election by spending 75 percent of his budget on "negativity" against a candidate whose refusal to fight back projected nothing but weakness in the face of aggression -- precisely the story Bush wanted to tell about him.

If you start with networks, you think very differently about politics.

Just how important networks are in understanding why candidates win and lose can be seen by contrasting two political advertisements, the first from Bill Clinton's campaign for the presidency in 1992, and the second from John Kerry's in 2004. The two ads seem very similar in their "surface structure." But looks can be deceiving. A "clinical" dissection of these ads makes clear that they couldn't have been more different in the networks they activated and the emotions they elicited. And forty years of electoral history show that the best predictors of voting behavior are voters' feelings toward the parties and their candidates, not their beliefs about "the issues" that have been the central preoccupation of Democratic campaigns for decades.

Activating Hope

Clinton's ad was deceptively simple, narrated exclusively (and with exquisitely moving emotion) by the young Arkansas governor. In the background was music evocative of small-town America, along with images and video clips that underscored the message.

BILL CLINTON: I was born in a little town called Hope, Arkansas [image of a small-town train station, with the name HOPE on a small white sign against a brick background], three months after my father died. I remember that old two-story house where I lived with my grandparents. They had very limited incomes. It was in 1963 [video clip of John F. Kennedy, looking presidential, coming up to a podium] that I went to Washington and met President Kennedy at the Boy's Nation Program [video of the young Clinton and the youthful President Kennedy shaking hands]. And I remember [living room video of a now-adult Clinton, starry eyed and nostalgic thinking about the encounter with a man who was obviously his hero] just, uh, thinking what an incredible country this was, that somebody like me, you know, who had no money or anything, would be given the opportunity to meet the President [photo of their hands clasped, slowly and gradually expanding to show the connection between the two men]. That's when I decided I could really do public service because I cared so much about people. I worked my way through law school with part time jobs -- anything I could find. After I graduated, I really didn't care about making a lot of money [photos of poor and working-class houses in Arkansas]. I just wanted to go home and see if I could make a difference [photo of the young governor-elect raising his right hand to take the oath of office as governor of Arkansas]. We've worked hard in education and health care [video clips of Clinton with children in a classroom, being hugged by a woman in her seventies or eighties, and talking with workers] to create jobs and we've made real progress [photo of the governor hard at work late at night in his office]. Now it's exhilarating to me to think that as president I could help to change all our people's lives for the better [video of Clinton obviously at ease with a smiling young girl in his arms] and bring hope back to the American dream.

If you dissect this ad, you can readily see why it was one of the most effective television commercials in the history of American politics. Bill Clinton never shied away from policy debates, but this ad was not about policy. Its sole purpose was to begin creating a set of positive associations to him and a compelling story about the Man from Hope. In his first sentence, he vividly conveyed where he was coming from, literally and metaphorically -- from a place of Hope. But he was not content to do this just with words. The ad created in viewers a vivid, multisensory network of associations -- associations not just to the word hope but to the image of Hope in small-town America in an era gone by, captured by the image of the train station, and the sound of hope, captured in his voice. Clinton told his own life story, but he told it as a parable of what anyone can accomplish if just given the chance. He tied the theme of hope to the well-established theme of the American dream, presenting himself not as a man of privilege descending (or condescending) to help those less fortunate but as someone no different from anyone else who grew up on Main Street in any town -- indeed, as someone who had suffered more adversity than most, having been born after his own father's death.

The "story line" of the narrative might be summarized in three simple sentences: "Through hard work, caring, and determination, I know what it's like to live the American dream. In my home state, I've done everything possible to help others realize that dream. And as your president, I'll do everything I can to help people all over this country realize their dreams like I've done in Arkansas." In the closing line, he tied these twin themes -- hope and the American dream -- together, describing his desire to bring "hope back to the American dream." The theme of hope was reinforced by the final image of a young child, representing our collective hope for the future, and the hope of every parent. Although you can't get much more "hopeful" than that, the final line of the ad actually included a subtle allusion to the Bush economy (bring hope back to the American dream, implying that it had been lost), with an implicit negative message most voters would likely register only unconsciously.

The association to President Kennedy was also instrumental to the emotional appeal of the ad. Kennedy was an American icon, whose brief tenure in the White House is widely remembered as a time in which America's hopes soared along with its space program. Careful dissection of the sequence of visual images shows how brilliantly the ad was crafted.

The sequence began with Kennedy by himself, looking young, vibrant, serious, and presidential -- precisely the features the Clinton campaign wanted to associate with Clinton. Then came the video of a young Bill Clinton shaking hands with Kennedy, dramatically bringing the theme of the American dream to viewers' eyes -- a poor boy from Arkansas without a father finding himself in the presence of his hero -- while creating a sense of something uncanny, of "fate," of the chance meeting of once and future presidents that seemed too accidental not to be preordained. Then came a still photo of their hands tightly clasped, emphasizing the connection between the two men. This image lasted far longer than any other in the ad and gradually expanded until the two hands panned out into an image of the two recognizable figures.

Clearly, a central goal of the ad was to establish Clinton as presidential, particularly in light of the rumors about his sexual escapades during the bruising primary season (which may actually have been turned to his advantage through the associations to the handsome Kennedy, who himself was associated with tales of infidelities but was nonetheless revered). The ad seized every opportunity to show what Bill Clinton would look like as president, with the image of his raising his right hand to accept the oath of office (as governor of Arkansas, but from a visual point of view, literally showing what Clinton would look like in his swearing in ceremony as president) followed by a photo of him working tirelessly at his desk, signing bills (itself reminiscent of photos of Kennedy).

I don't know how much of this was consciously intended by Clinton and his consultants or just reflected their extraordinary emotional intelligence and gut-level, intuitive political horse sense. But I can say with confidence that political strategists who cannot either construct or "dissect" the emotional structure of an ad like this present a far greater danger to the Democratic Party and its values than all President Bush's appointees to the federal bench.

Because ultimately, they are the ones who put them there.

Rational Minds Make for Irrational Campaigns

Like Clinton's "Hope" ad, the first television advertisement run by the Kerry campaign in the general election, in early May 2004, attempted to begin painting a picture -- to tell a story -- about John Kerry, the man and potential president.

JOHN KERRY: [patriotic music, with prominent brass] I was born in Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Colorado. [initial video of candidate speaking, which returns throughout the ad] My dad was serving in the Army Air Corps. Both of my parents taught me about public service [photos of the candidate's parents]. I enlisted because I believed in service to country. [photo of the young solider with his comrades in arms] I thought it was important if you had a lot of privileges as I had had, to go to a great university like Yale, to give something back to your country [video footage of a soldier walking in the jungles of Vietnam].

DEL SANDUSKY: The decisions that he made saved our lives.
JIM RASSMAN: When he pulled me out of the river, he risked his life to save mine.

ANNOUNCER: For more than thirty years, John Kerry has served America [photo of Kerry talking on the phone, with glasses hanging off his face].

VANESSA KERRY: If you look at my father's time in service to this country, whether it's as a veteran [photo of war service], prosecutor [photo of Kerry pointing toward a window in setting that looks like a courtroom, which zooms quickly in to Kerry], or senator, he has shown an ability to fight for things that matter.
TERESA HEINZ-KERRY: John is the face of someone who's hopeful [photo of the two, possibly as newlyweds, with Kerry smiling broadly], who's generous of spirit and of heart.
JOHN KERRY: We're a country of optimists. We're the can-do people. And we just need to believe in ourselves again [video of Kerry speaking again, followed by video of profile of Kerry waving in some political event].
ANNOUNCER: A lifetime of service and strength. John Kerry for President.

On the surface, the differences between this ad and Clinton's may be difficult to detect. Both begin with the candidate using his birthplace to drive home a central theme. For Kerry, the central theme was that he was born and bred in uniform, a theme central to a campaign trying to unseat an incumbent widely seen as a strong leader in a perpetual "war on terror."

The ad began with moving, patriotic music that played throughout, with an emphasis on muted brass tones, congruent with the military theme, and conveying both strength and majesty -- precisely the tone he needed to convey. The most moving moments of the ad came as Kerry's fellow soldiers told, with genuine emotion in their voices, how he had saved their lives.

But that is where the similarity with the Clinton ad ends.

After Kerry's opening paragraph, in which he told the American people in his own words who he was and what he wanted them to know about him, the rest of the ad didn't matter. Kerry had already spent his first millions of campaign dollars telling the story George W. Bush wanted to tell about him, beginning to weave precisely the web of emotional associations in which the Bush campaign hoped to ensnare him: that he was not only privileged but a Northeastern liberal intellectual.

The Republicans were already emphasizing that Kerry was "Ted Kennedy's junior senator," and the phrase "Massachusetts liberal" had become so successfully branded by the Republicans that either word could readily evoke the other. When Kerry added the reference to Yale, he fully activated the primary network that the conservative movement has worked for so many years to stamp into the American psyche to galvanize disdain and resentment toward Democrats: the liberal elite. Put together Massachusetts, liberal senator, and Yale, and you have virtually the whole network activated. The only thing missing is a windsurfing outfit.

Whatever its intended goal, that first paragraph of the Kerry ad served to convey one primary message that would stick in the neural networks of voters for the remainder of the election: This guy isn't like me. Indeed, when I saw this ad for the first time, I asked my wife, in disbelief, "Did that ad end with 'I'm John Kerry, and I approve this ad' or with 'I'm George Bush, and I approve this ad'?"

Just four years earlier, the American electorate (with, to be fair, the help of a little creative lawyering) had placed into the highest position in the land the most anti-intellectual president in over 150 years. The Bush campaign certainly understood what "average folks" think about intellectuals. Consider what I believe is the only reference George W. Bush ever made in two runs for the White House to his own privileged educational pedigree (Andover, Yale, Harvard Business School). The reference came in a commencement address at Yale in May 2001:

Most important, congratulations to the class of 2001. [Applause]) To those of you who received honors, awards, and distinctions, I say, well done. And to the C students -- [applause] -- I say, you, too, can be President of the United States. [Laughter and applause]) A Yale degree is worth a lot, as I often remind Dick Cheney -- [laughter] -- who studied here, but left a little early. So now we know -- if you graduate from Yale, you become president. If you drop out, you get to be vice president. [Laughter.]

Kerry's reference to Yale raises a profound psychological question. What implicit assumptions about mind, brain, and political persuasion did the strategists and consultants who crafted that ad share that would lead them to make such an extraordinary mistake?

The references to Yale and privilege were the most glaring mistakes in that ad, but they were not the only ones. Perhaps most importantly, the ad did not, like Clinton's, tell a coherent story. Try to summarize it using the narrative structure of a good storyteller, and you'll see the problem.

In fact, it told two stories. The second had nothing to do with the first, and seemed like it had come straight from the mind of a consultant rather from the heart of the candidate. The first story, "John Kerry was born on a military base, served his country heroically because he believed it was his duty, fought dangerous criminals as a prosecutor, and would be a strong commander in chief," was clear and effective. But then the plot shifted, with Teresa Heinz-Kerry introducing the theme of optimism. The insertion of this non sequitur no doubt reflected his consultants' belief that optimism is a "winner" for presidential candidates. But if changing narrative horses in midstream were not enough, Mrs. Kerry introduced it with an incongruent facial expression -- a mixture of serious and dour -- that undercut the words. Then the senator reiterated the theme, with his facial expression similarly discordant from the language. His face was flat and impassive -- no smile, no twinkle, nothing to engender feelings of excitement, national pride, or hope. The optimism theme seemed grafted onto both the message and the candidate.

Finally, the use of imagery in the Kerry ad stands in stark contrast to its effective use in the Clinton ad. The scenes of Vietnam, and particularly the faces and intonation of the men who served with Kerry, painted a clear and moving portrait. But after that, it seemed as if someone had just hastily rummaged through the Kerry family scrapbook. The photo of Kerry "serving" conveyed nothing about him, other than perhaps that he needed bifocals. The image used to illustrate his service as a prosecutor and then as a senator was difficult even to decipher. After watching the video multiple times, I realized he was in a courtroom pointing at a defendant. However, for the first several viewings, I couldn't tell where he was standing and what he was pointing at (eerily foreshadowing the campaign George W. Bush would so successfully run against him). Even the candidate's final, arm-waving profile at the end seemed tepid, conveying weakness rather than strength.

The difference between the Clinton ad and the Kerry ad -- like the difference between the Clinton campaign and virtually every other Democratic presidential campaign of the last three decades -- reflects the difference between understanding and misunderstanding mind, brain, and emotion in American politics. If you think the failure to tell a coherent story, or to illustrate your words with the evocative images, is just the "window dressing" of a campaign, you're missing something very important about the political brain: Political persuasion is about networks and narratives.

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University and founder of Westen Strategies. He is the author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, Public Affairs Books, from which this article was adapted.

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