Wilson Research Strategies

Many of the campaigns we are involved in this time of the year are primary races with crowded fields. As researchers, these can be some of the most challenging and most interesting races to study because of the variety of ways that voters process information and make decisions among multiple candidates.

Often campaigns and consultants make one of two mistaken assumptions about the way primary voters make choices and these lead to poor strategy and poor performance:

  • 1) The “rational voter” assumption. Some campaigns and consultants seem to assume that voters are paying close attention to the campaign and measuring it on every single possible issue. Campaigns that make this mistake tend to try to talk about every single possible issue, “win” every single point and use every possible argument for their candidate. Campaigns that make this assumption waste time, effort and resources putting out messages that simply don’t matter. On the occasion that these campaigns succeed, it is only because they were lucky enough that some of the messages they put out did matter and their opponents were equally unsophisticated in their understanding of voter behavior.

  • 2) The “ignorant voter” assumption. If the “rational voter” assumption gives voters too much credit, the “ignorant voter” assumption commits the opposite sin. Campaigns and consultants who make this assumption seem to think of voters as mindlessly shuffling into the voting booth and pulling the lever with almost no understanding of whom they are selecting. To these campaigns and consultants name ID is often the critical goal as under their assumption voters are likely to make a decision based on a simple “at least I’ve heard of him” criterion. Much like the “rational voter” assumption, the strategy suggested by this assumption can be a winning one, particularly in elections where only one campaign has sufficient resources to develop name ID. Unfortunately for many candidates, a campaign or consultant who assumes “ignorant voters” has only one strategy and will be unsuccessful when faced with a race where they are not alone in building name ID or where name ID alone turns out not to be enough.

So, if assuming that voters are perfect computers comparing all of the pluses and minuses of each candidate is wrong and assuming that they are making superficial decisions based on no information is wrong, what is the right strategy? Something that economists and psychologists call “bounded rationality.” Without delving into the complex arguments taking place in fields like cognitive psychology and behavioral economics, a working definition of “bounded rationality” that serves our purposes as campaign researchers is that voters are capable of considering a limited amount of information about candidates and they consider just enough information to reach a decision that satisfies them.

The obvious question for a campaign researcher then is: “What information do voters consider?”—or, in an important distinction that we will return to later: “What information are voters going to consider in this race on Election Day?” Fortunately for us, economists and psychologists have developed an extensive understanding of this “bounded rationality.” (As an aside, pioneering researchers in this field such as Herbert Simon, Daniel Kahneman, and Amos Tversky were all psychologists by training who wrote extensively in the economics literature.) One thing they have discovered is that people use predictable cognitive shortcuts called heuristics to simplify decision-making of all types. If we understand these heuristics we can easily see how they apply to voter decision-making. For the purposes of this discussion, we will limit ourselves to those heuristics that voters often use in crowded primaries. There is a different set of heuristics that voters are more likely to use in a two-candidate primary or in a general election campaign.

Below are some common heuristics that psychologists and economists have uncovered, each with a few comments about its relevance to crowded primary races.

Affect Heuristic: An affect is a feeling that occurs rapidly in response to a stimulus. The affect heuristic describes the observation that people will often make a decision based on either an immediate emotional reaction to stimulus or a first impression even when their own evaluation of already known or subsequently revealed facts would lead them to a different decision. From the standpoint of a campaign, voters applying an affect heuristic support a candidate based on emotional attachment or repulsion rather than a consideration of facts and issues. Affect heuristic helps explain why we sometimes see incumbents with low job approval but high favorable ratings and ballot support—voters in those circumstances are not making decisions based on facts about performance. Affect heuristic also helps partly explain the error some campaigns and consultants make of fixating on name ID; positive affect will correlate with name ID and a misguided casual observation of races where voters were applying an affect heuristic would lead to the conclusion that name ID translated to votes.

Single Factor Heuristic: When using a single factor heuristic a voter makes a decision based on which candidate is best on a single factor. Often this is a specific issue but it can also be a trait such as experience or hometown. Voters may employ this heuristic in a variety of ways. Some may screen candidates by rejecting candidates that fail the single factor test and then apply another heuristic to decide among acceptable candidates. Others may have a mental factor hierarchy by which they test candidates on a variety of factors one at a time until they have rejected all but one candidate. Another way that some voters use this heuristic is to use the most obvious difference between two candidates as a single decision factor.

Ideology Heuristic: A heuristic somewhat related to the single factor heuristics is what political scientists refer to as an ideology heuristic. When voters use this heuristic they choose the candidate they perceive as closest to them ideologically and vote for that candidate. The important thing to understand about this heuristic is that voters are not making judgments about candidate ideology based on a thorough assessment of specific issue positions—the campaign that worries “How can they think he’s conservative? He voted for/against issue X!” is misunderstanding how voters employ this heuristic. When voters use an ideology heuristic they are relying on an impression of candidate ideology based on a variety of cues rather than making an issue-based assessment.

Authority or Liking Heuristic (Endorsements):
Voters can use endorsements as a heuristic as well. These can be an authority heuristic when the opinions of people or entities whom voters perceive as in charge or possessing special knowledge about the race are used as a heuristic. Endorsements can also serve as a liking heuristic when the endorsement of a figure who a voter is positively disposed towards is used to reach a positive judgment about the endorsed candidate. The recent case of The Washington Post endorsement of Creigh Deeds in the Virginia Democratic primary for governor was an excellent case study of how some voters applied an authority heuristic based on an assumption that the Post must be knowledgeable about Democratic politics.

While there are many other heuristics that may be applied by voters in crowded primaries, these offer insights into how voter behavior can be studied.

In addition to knowing the types of heuristics a voter may use, it is critical for a campaign researcher to understand that heuristics are situational behaviors rather than stable types. The mistake of assuming that there are voter types—single-issue voters, endorsement voters and ideological voters, for example—is almost as dangerous as the assumption that all voters are either fully rational or fully ignorant. In fact, this misunderstanding of the situational nature of decision-making is so widespread and so misleading, that it has its own name—it is called the fundamental attribution error.

The truth is that the same voter who makes a decision using a single factor today may apply an ideology heuristic in a different election, or even in the same election if the situation changes. Voters apply heuristics to make their decision easier—to pick a satisfactory candidate with the minimum information gathering and cognitive effort—they may switch from applying one heuristic to another if information becomes available that makes one easier than another to apply.

Understanding voter heuristics is an invaluable addition to a campaign. The first task in developing a message and strategy for any campaign should be to answer the question, “How are voters going to make their decision in this election?” Too often campaigns and consultants make implicit, or occasionally explicit, assumptions about voter decision-making that simply don’t reflect a modern understanding of bounded rationality and the situational heuristics that voters will really be applying to their decision in an election.

Good research designed to identify and monitor the heuristics voters are using to make their choice coupled with an understanding of how to develop and implement strategies and messages tailored to those heuristics can give any campaign a substantial and winning advantage on Election Day.  

Chris Wilson is the founder and chief executive officer of Wilson Research Strategies, a Republican polling firm based in Washington, D.C. Bryon Allen is the chief operations officer.