A couple of days ago I settled in over lunch, hit the OnDemand feature on my Comcast remote, and punched up The Daily Show. It’s become something of a habit to watch Jon & Co. while I scarf down a quickly made sandwich or the previous evening’s leftovers and—I admit it—I find the show screamingly funny. Faux news being what it is, though, it’s not always all faux: sometimes there’s news.
In this particular episode Mr. Stewart was examining the excitement—or lack thereof—surrounding Mitt Romney—now the all-but-anointed nominee. We saw one clip after another of conservative pundits and politicians alike giving Mitt, at best, a lukewarm “attaboy.” One politician boringly intoned that he is “excited that the process is over.” Another added that “the excitement will come from getting Barack Obama out of the White House.” And Stewart, responding to Charles Krauthammer’s resounding non-support from just a few months back, declared that Romney appeared to be way down on Krauthammer’s preferred candidate list, just below “a plate of cold cuts in the shape of a face.”
Everyone on the right now needs to pivot, and pivot hard. They’re trying, but it may be too late; the meme of lackluster = Romney is now so ingrained in the electorate (and, in particular, the conservative side of the electorate) that the hill Romney has to climb is potentially Sisyphean. Why? Because emotion—how people feel about a candidate—is typically responsible for the voting behavior of more than eighty percent of the electorate.
Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of Nations, puts it like this: “The data from political science are crystal clear: people vote for the candidates who elicit the right feelings, not the candidate who presents the best arguments.” Policies only matter “to the extent that they influence voters’ emotions.” Study after study conducted by Westen and others over the last fifty years belies the conventional wisdom of elections, that voters are rational, that they are concerned with self-interest, that they pick and choose from among the most personally relevant issues, and that they then collect the information necessary to make a reasonably informed decision.
“But this view of mind and brain couldn’t be further from the truth,” Westen writes. “In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins. Although the marketplace of ideas is a great place to shop for policies, the marketplace that matters most in American politics is the marketplace of emotions.”
And right now, Mitt, even Google Maps couldn’t help you locate that marketplace.
The irony in all of this is that the GOP is the party which has most effectively recognized the truism of emotional power over facts and figures. In 2000, while Gore was parading policy arcana to the electorate (embellished with indecipherable statistics), George Bush was being a good ole’ boy from Texas, someone a lot of people apparently decided they’d like to have a beer with. The rational approach converted Gore’s double-digit lead to a near-miss. Eight years later, Barack Obama learned that lesson, riding an absence of substance into the White House behind a curtain of hope and change.
Nothing’s different today, nor will it be tomorrow; most of the electorate is still warming to the idea of voting their guts. But in their guts, Romney’s not the guy.
So you need to see this for what it is, Mitt, and wake up a bit. Find a way to connect, to show some real passion, to convince our guts that you’re someone we want in the White House. If you don’t find that emotional trigger—if you don’t connect somehow—then it’s all but over. History says so.
[Images borrowed from The Daily Show and RedState.]