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Teams, Elections, and Political Debates

Can group fault lines help us understand it all?

By Chester Spell & Katerina Bezrukova

What sounds more like you - watching college football while drinking a Samuel Adams beer? How about a quiet evening listening to smooth jazz after dinner at the Red Lobster? If the former, you are more likely to be a Romney voter, the latter, an Obama supporter- so say experts on both presidential campaigns that collect and mine data about what we visit and buy on the internet (”Campaigns mine personal lives to get out vote” New York Times, October 13). (If neither of these cases sounds like you, we don’t know what that means - we work for neither campaign - but it seems likely the campaigns would know).

This is really nothing new - social science has been used by politicians for years to, in a way, divide and conquer groups of people according to attributes they have in common--remember ‘soccer moms’ and ‘NASCAR dads’? Also, social psychologists have learned that groups of people who feel they share things in common with others, especially if they are distinct from other groups, can in some cases perform better (if they are a work group). This is all based on principles of social identity theory. But those findings are about groups of people you know on a personal level. But how about groups, like the ones political campaigns are interested in - how much does anyone identify with democrats or republicans, and more importantly, how likely are such groups to ‘stick’ to their voting preferences? Psychologists have tried to explain this by studying how closely people identify with others that vote for a candidate. While political scientists do political profiling, psychologists came up with the neat idea of demographic faultlines (splits in a group) that take into account multiple attributes people can identify with (e.g., gender, race, drinking preferences, socio-economic status). Faultlines help us to understand not only how people identify with others and stick to voting preferences but also how identity-based groups change preferences over time. Here is where mass media comes in!

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 Media acts as a trigger that highlights the factors that unite (or divide) people and pulls people to one candidate or another. This means the key group is really not democratic voters or those that identify as republicans, but, of course, the undecided voters -- and how they change their minds over time. While it is currently assumed that a lot of people shifted to Romney as a direct cause of the first presidential debate, this in itself seems unlikely. First, single debates have very rarely changed election outcomes, as political blogger Nate Silver and others have shown by looking at historical records. Also, such assumptions (‘that debate gave us a horse race!’), while popular in the mass media that likes simple messages, ignores dynamic effects like herding, or the ‘everybody loves a winner effect’ and if they perceive one candidate as winning, they are more likely to gravitate to that one (commonly called the ‘bounce’ for a candidate). The mirror image of this might be called the despondency effect, when people not strongly committed to a candidate drop off when times look tough. It seems likely that media itself, in reporting changes in a race, in fact, contributes to these effects. 

So, in understanding changes in the polls, or similar shifts in popular opinion, it seems its not just a matter of what is happening at the moment, but how closely people identify with others that vote for a candidate, how preferences change over time, and how events are being portrayed. While political campaigns have done a great job applying social psychology to understand group-based identity at any one time, there is a ways to go to understand how and why these groups change. Realizing all this should make watching politics unfold over the next few weeks a lot more interesting than all those political ads anyway…

Chester S. Spell, Ph.D., is an associate professor of management at Rutgers University.

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