June 20, 2004

Can Clinton help us love Kerry?

In today's NYT, John Tierney conveys an expert psychologist's advice to John Kerry. The expert is Drew Westen, a psychologist at Emory University, and the specific Kerry concern addressed is Clinton's charisma, which is going to shine upon us for the next week or month or so. Should Kerry, like Gore, distance himself from Clinton? Professor Westen says no, based on experiments inspired by the commercial, shown in the 2000 Presidential campaign, that momentarily flashed the word "rats" on the TV screen:
[One experiment showed] that people exposed subliminally to "rats" before seeing the picture of a politician tended to rate the politician more negatively.

"Subliminal priming can't radically change someone's opinion, but it can have an impact," Professor Westen said. "It won't make you drink if you're not thirsty, but if you are thirsty it could make you drink more. If Republicans had run the 'rats' ad enough, it's possible they could have influenced a small number of voters."

But what really hurt Democrats in 2000, Professor Westen said, was Al Gore's distancing himself from Bill Clinton. Although many voters may tell pollsters and focus groups that they disapprove of Mr. Clinton because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Professor Westen said, in their hearts they still like him.

The psychologists measured his appeal last year by flashing subliminal images of Mr. Clinton to people before asking them to rate their feelings toward Gray Davis, the then-unpopular governor of California. The people unknowingly exposed to Mr. Clinton's face tended to rate Mr. Davis considerably less negatively than did the control group, and the effect was especially strong among independent voters (as opposed to hard-core Democrats or Republicans with fixed attitudes about Mr. Davis).

"It was surprising that something as fleeting as three brief images of Clinton could affect people's gut attitudes toward a politician who was already as well known and unpopular as Gray Davis," Professor Westen said. "Clinton can bring out warm feelings in voters for Kerry the way that the late Ronald Reagan did last week for President Bush. For Democrats the mantra this year should be, 'It's the emotion, stupid.'"

Interesting experiments, but do these conclusions fit? In the experiments, as in the "rats" commercial, images were flashed too quickly to register in the viewer's conscious mind. What Clinton is going to be doing in the next week or so is about as far from that as you can get. If Clinton and Gray Davis shared the stage for an interview or if Clinton spoke for half an hour and then Gray Davis came up to speak, would we like Gray Davis more? Maybe, but I don't see the connection with the experiment. Doesn't the experiment have to do with slipping past the conscious mind?

The comparison to the recent glorification of Ronald Reagan is more apt, but not only is there no experiment testing the effect of that experience on voters' minds, but the Reagan funeral events were beautifully orchestrated rituals. Clinton lives and breathes and will be out and about doing interviews. One can only speculate about the effect that will have on our feelings for Kerry. Clinton is rather likely to say some things about Iraq and the war on terrorism that support Bush and contradict the general flow of anti-Bush emotion Kerry might hope for. I don't really see that the professor is offering Kerry-supporters much reassurance about the coming Clinton media-fest. But what are you going to do? Let's all watch Clinton now. It will be interesting. We just wallowed in the 80s, so let's wallow in the 90s. I don't know whether Bush or Kerry will benefit from the Clinton-fest, but we all benefit from the break from having to listen to Bush and Kerry. There will be time enough for the 2004 campaign in the fall.

By the way, can we please stop saying "It's the [blank], stupid"? But even if we are going to continue with "It's the [blank], stupid" slogans, "It's the emotion, stupid" would be a terrible one, because you don't affect people's emotions by announcing that's what you're trying to do. In any event, some unknowable component of decisionmaking is always emotional, but trying to make that emotion flow the way you'd like is another matter altogether. I'm glad experts are doing experiments about this, but what a disaster it would be if we actually learned how to control the voters' emotions. We'd have to abandon democracy, wouldn't we?

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