If you think this cycle has gone a little nutty, you aren’t alone. The good news is that political psychology can explain what’s going on and help consultants figure out what to do about it.
Indeed, 2016 has seen a number of fascinating developments related to political psychology with implications for voter targeting. Here are three such stories to watch.
Cruz’s psychological targeting
Hindsight is always 20/20, but Ted Cruz’s victory in Iowa was never a foregone conclusion. The Cruz campaign credited its unexpected success to psychological data and analytics. The campaign constructed psychographic profiles of Iowa voters that, among other things, included classic measures of personality from psychology, such as the Big Five personality traits.
As political psychologists have long argued and the Cruz’s data confirmed, the traits of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism correlate with political preferences and behaviors. It’s no secret that Cruz has a, well, unique personality, as Iowa Republican caucus voters surely observed firsthand. Yet Cruz was able to overcome this charm deficiency with the help of psychographics and carefully tailored messages.
While Democrats still have superior data analytics overall, Republicans have been quicker to add metrics from psychology into their microtargeting programs, and this gives them an advantage. In any analytics program, the risk of spurious correlations is quite high. Metrics from political psychology reduce that risk, if only because they have been robustly validated and repeatedly tested.
Trump’s authoritarian followers
Speaking of psychological metrics, it appears that authoritarianism is the single best predictor of support for Donald Trump, more than any other demographic trait such as education, income, gender, age, religiosity or ideology as pollsters traditionally measure it. As I have argued for years, right wing authoritarianism is one of the two major psychological pillars of political ideology. While there a number of validated methods for measuring it, the authoritarian spectrum measures a) preference for strict social norms, b) obedience to traditional authorities, and c) support for aggressive or coercive measures to enforce conformity and submission.
But political movements filled with authoritarians are not necessarily led by fellow authoritarians. Far more often, these movements are led by strongmen with high levels of social dominance orientation, the second major psychological pillar of ideology. Social dominance orientation measures a) preference for greater inequality between groups, and b) willingness to exploit and subordinate other groups. Authoritarians are conformist and obedient, but social dominators tend to flaunt the rules, care about winning above all else, and revel in displays of dominance. Sound familiar?
The Democratic Party’s generational divide
Millennials, those aged 30 and under, who are voting in the Democratic primaries support Bernie Sanders by 3-to-1 margins or more. Those over 65, meanwhile, are supporting Hillary Clinton by equally impressive margins. The older generations appear likely to prevail in the presidential primary contest, but Democrats will soon need to recalibrate their strategy to keep Millennials engaged in 2016 and beyond.
Young people are looking for big solutions to the massive problems they face today and just over the horizon: crushing student debt, rapidly diminishing career opportunities, a political system polarized by ideology and corrupted by big money, and a looming global climate catastrophe.
In the current political climate, the kind of transformational liberalism Millennials want probably isn’t achievable. The problem is that far too many Democratic politicians sound like they’re opposed in principle to the Millennial generation’s aspirations. If Democrats want to benefit from Millennial enthusiasm and civic energy, they must learn to sing a different tune.
This isn’t about promising things that are impossible to deliver. It’s about not letting pragmatism dampen one’s idealism and ambition.