Most news about the 2012 Republican primaries has focused on which candidates are faring well in which states. This focus on the levels of support for each of the Republican candidates misses a critically important part of those opinions and the larger primary election process—something that social psychologists call attitude strength.
What is attitude strength?
Exactly what the name implies. Strong attitudes (used synonymously here with opinions or preferences) are defined by two key features: (1) they tend to be stable over time (and thus be resistant to change) and (2) they motivate behavior. By contrast, we don't tend to act on our weak attitudes and they tend to fluctuate chaotically over the course of time. Strength can come in a variety of forms, but psychologists tend to see an attitude as strong when a person is certain about their attitude, when that attitude is personally important to them, and/or when that attitude is well-reasoned (i.e., that there is considerable "cognitive complexity" underlying one's opinion).
Strong attitudes matter because they influence behaviors. In elections, strong preferences lead voters to turnout, donate, and volunteer-three critical behaviors that predict a primary candidate's likelihood of securing the presidential nomination. Citizens with strong candidate preferences are going to engage in these three key behaviors. Citizens who may support a candidate, but only weakly, will likely do none of them. Obviously, candidates need their supporters to turnout and vote in order for that support to matter electorally, but donations and volunteers are the fuel that enable campaigns to persuade and influence potential supporters (e.g., through door-to-door canvassing, television advertising buys, and so forth).
As a result, in order to win primaries, eventually capture the party's nomination, and ultimately stand a chance in the November election, the Republican candidates—like all primary election candidates throughout history—need to not only influence the opinions of their party's base but also change the strength of those opinions.
How do candidates change the strength of voters' opinions? One way is to change the importance of voters' opinions. Candidates can do this by appealing to core values or their self-interest, or by invoking group identity. In primary elections, this can be hard because candidates are communicating to a subset of the electorate (those who share core political values and identities due to their affiliation with one political party) and competing against candidates that have similar positions. Another way is to increase voters' certainty about their opinions—getting them to feel more certain about their candidate preferences. Achieving that requires time and media exposure and therefore benefits the highest profile, longest-running candidates.
Which candidates have supporters with strong attitudes?
We can look for evidence of stability of opinions over time. Pollster reports a nice visualization of nearly all opinion poll results regarding the Republican primary since June 2011. The graph shows the result of each individual poll and moving averages (represented by the solid colored lines) of those results that more precisely show trends in support for each candidate over time than any individual poll.
What should be immediately clear is that Romney has held onto a stable base of support for nearly a year, while all of his rivals have surged and subsequently declined. Perry, Cain, Gingrich, and Santorum have each seen short-lived peaks of support (none of which have exceeded 30% of the Republican Party vote). Indeed Romney won 20 percent of the Republicans' primary votes in 2008 and polled at almost exactly 20 percent when he entered the 2012 race.
The stability of Romney's support over time suggests that Republican voters—while never overwhelmingly supportive—have had strongly formed opinions about him since the very early stages of the campaign. Because strong attitudes are strong (duh), they resist change, and weak attitudes are much more easily influenced and changed. Even if Republican voters may not love Romney, a solid plurality has strong, well-formed, and generally positive opinions about him.
Anecdotally, Paul is seen as having a fervent base of support—supporters who strongly favor Paul over the alternatives. But to the extent that his supporters have strong positive opinions of him, his opponents within the Republican base seem to have similarly strong negative opinions of him. Another candidate will struggle to sway his strong-attitude supporters just as he will struggle to sway his strong-attitude opponents.
Paul and Romney benefit from having bases of support that have developed strong positive opinions for their preferred candidate since at least 2008, when each candidate last ran for the Presidency. Fellow Psychology Today blogger Michael Alvarez has written extensively on how exposure to information about candidates reduces voters' uncertainty, giving them stronger attitudes about the candidates they have learned more about than those that they have learned less about. With more time to have learned about Paul and Romney (more than four years in the national media spotlight), voters necessarily have stronger attitudes about these two candidates than any of the other Republican candidates.
Every other candidate who has entered the 2012 race has therefore had to persuade at least 20 percent of the Republican base (i.e., a share as large as Romney's strong and stable base) and try to get those supporters to feel strongly about their preference. Romney has had the advantage of time for Republicans to develop strong (even if not enamored) opinions.
Clearly, the Pollster graph suggests that while persuasion has occurred for several of the recent Republican "frontrunners," none of them have managed to produce strong attitudes among their supporters. The result of that is that while the polls have shown high levels of support, that apparent support has not translated into the three critical behaviors of the primary campaign: turnout, donations, and volunteers.
As a result of all of this, voters' strong attitudes are both an asset and a detriment to this field of candidates. Winning primaries (and any election) is a game of not only gaining broad support (i.e., getting voters to have a positive attitude about you), but also making sure that each supporter holds a firm opinion, while minimizing opposition, and making sure that each opponent voter holds a sufficiently weak opinion that they might still be persuaded to jump on the bandwagon down the road.