Voter behavior and what 'The West Wing' teaches us about Wisconsin

In the last season of NBC’s “The West Wing,” fictional White House staffers Josh Lyman, played by Bradley Whitford, and Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe, have an exchange about the obsessiveness of politically active individuals.

Sam: Neuroscientists have found that when people who describe themselves as politically committed listen to political statements they respond only with the emotional side of the brain. The area of the cortex where reasoning occurs stays quiet.

Josh: So those people screaming at each other on cable really can’t help it.

Sam: And guys like you and me are, quantifiably, a little nuts.

This scene came to mind as I watched Tuesday's recall results. Wisconsin and “The West Wing” have a little lesson to teach those of us who need help waking up that reasoning part of our cortex.

If the exit polls are accurate, 17 percent of Obama supporters voted for Gov. Scott Walker (R) in the recall. On top of that, the exits had 60 percent of the voters saying recalls should only be used in cases of official misconduct and 10 percent saying recalls are never appropriate.

Those numbers should give consultants pause. It’s important for political professionals and activists to think about the perceived legitimacy of their causes as they’re portrayed in media. On Tuesday night, as the recall was still happening, I kept watching the #wirecall tweets. It was clear that both sides were attempting to establish, even early in the day, a narrative about their opponents cheating. Walker supporters kept tweeting about dead voters being bused in from Chicago. Supporters of Democrat Tom Barrett claimed there were robocalls to recall supporters telling them they didn’t need to vote if they signed a petition. These were the tweets of people who have quieted the area of the cortex where reasoning occurs.

A few days ago on this site Stefan Hankin wrote, “don’t listen to anyone who claims [the Wisconsin recall] is a precursor to what will happen in the 2012 presidential election.” He was absolutely right. The election was about Wisconsin, not President Obama and Mitt Romney. Still, I would argue we could learn a little something from the results. The advocates of the recall thought they could convince a majority of voters that Walker was as bad as they perceived him to be.

This has happened before. In 1996, Republicans hated Bill Clinton and thought that hatred was enough to convince the public to vote for then-Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.). Democrats made the same mistake in 2004 thinking their disdain for George W. Bush was enough to win over Independents.

In 1996, 2004 and this week in Wisconsin the most politically committed among us mistakenly believed that their anger at their opposition would be enough to convince the rest of the public to throw out that opposition. This year if the Obama and Romney campaigns learn anything from Wisconsin it should be that it’s not enough to hate the other side. You have to give the voters, those people who don’t share your political obsessions, something to vote for, not just something to vote against.

Robert Spicer is a doctoral candidate in media studies in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University. He is also an assistant professor of communication at DeSales University in Allentown, PA.

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Johnny Pollster

Generally, I agree with your premise, but how would you characterize the 2010 midterms as anything but populist anger harnessed (and financed) by vehemently anti-Democrat/anti-incumbent special interests?

Robert Spicer

Yes, the anti-Democratic and anti-incumbent sentiment was a big driving message for the 2010 election. I totally agree with you on that. However, I would say that election doesn't really negate the premise I'm arguing here.

First, one point I’m trying to make is that sometimes those who are very politically active/aware make the mistake that their beliefs are “common sense” and miss the fact that a lot of people disagree with that cause or just are not as emotionally invested in it. In other words, a lot of WI voters may have been sympathetic to the unions and their cause but still voted for Walker because they weren’t emotionally invested in it in the way activists are.

These are also the voters who may have said, “Well, I don’t really like Walker that much, but we can’t have recalls every time a group of people doesn’t like a politician.”

Another way to describe this argument is as “being blinded by passion.” Republicans in 1996 and Democrats in 2004 hated their respective opponents and couldn’t imagine a world where even a slim majority of Americans might actually NOT feel the same way. I think Republicans are suffering the same affliction this year with Obama and it might cost them.

Second, an anti-incumbent message can also be a pro-something else message at the same time. In 2010 the tea party movement, even if you see it as astro-turf or anti-Dem special interest activism, gave their voters a negative and a positive message. It was “vote the bums out” (negative) and “vote FOR my small government philosophy” (positive).

My favorite example of this is the New Jersey U.S. Senate race in 2002. Doug Forrester ran a campaign that was centered around how awful Robert Torricelli was. Forrester looked to have a pretty good shot at winning until Torricelli dropped out and was replaced by the Democrats with the recently retired Frank Lautenberg. Suddenly Forrester had to give voters a reason to vote FOR HIM not just AGAINST Torricelli. And Forrester lost.

So basically my two arguments are: don’t make the mistake of thinking the average voter shares your passion for your issue (or your hatred for your opponent) and give the voters a combination of positive (vote FOR me) and negative (vote AGAINST him) messages.


Why not cite an actual study and not a study from a tv show?


Why not cite an actual study and not a study from a tv show?

Robert Spicer

@Michelle: Because it's a blog post, not a dissertation. I was just trying to have a little fun with the writing.

Here you go.

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