Talking to Your Own People

The best part about politics, and particularly presidential elections, is that each news story or political ad  demonstrates the well-known negotiation theory of confirming evidence.  In other words, we only believe data that confirms what we already think.  And, watching the debate last night or listening to the political commentary afterwards probably confirmed for you what you already thought about the candidates.  And, this phenomenon doesn’t really help us or the candidates. 

First, as to the candidates, if you only go to political rallies where everyone already supports you, you might be forgiven for thinking that what you are saying is persuasive.  So…the allegations that Obama “pals around with terrorists” seemed to be really popular last week at rallies until the polls come out showing that most voters think that McCain is running a more negative campaign and that the attacks aren’t persuasive.   (It also doesn’t help when the rhetoric goes so far that McCain needs to correct his own constituents.) (See this hilarious clip from Lewis Black on negative advertising.)

Second, the echo chamber phenomenon doesn’t help us either learn about the candidates or what the rest of the population is thinking.  For example, after last week’s debate, 86% of Fox viewers (who phoned or texted their opinions) thought that McCain won the debate.  My guess is that a poll of Daily Show viewers might skew equally strongly in the other direction.  Polls conducted of random samples of voters had McCain losing that debate but by a closer margin.   

This phenomenon is one of the reasons that watching the debates on CNN with the “undecided” voters’ opinions scrolling at the bottom of the screen is addicting.  I am really curious to see what those who are uncommitted think (and, at the same time, wondering who in the world these people are–See John Oliver’s analysis on this)

My guess is, however, that the presidential debates are the last opportunity for voters across the spectrum to hear from candidates without a filter.  Now that the debates are over, the candidates and their supporters can safely return to only talking to people who already support them. 

5 thoughts on “Talking to Your Own People”

  1. The negative advertising discussion during the debate also highlighted the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

    At one point in the debate, Obama stated: “The American people have become so cynical about our politics, because all they see is a tit- for-tat and back-and-forth.” While it is clear what Obama meant, the statement, however, is incorrect and goes in the face of well-known negotiation theory.

    Negative advertising can be likened to a Prisoner’s Dilemma situation. If both candidates engage in negative advertising, they both lose because the general public tunes out. If both refrain from negative advertisement, both candidates are viewed more positively by the general public. While research has shown that negative advertisement may hurt a campaign’s success, the 2004 election proved that failure to quickly respond and address negative advertising (e.g. the Swift Boat campaign) can severely harm a candidate’s chances because he or she is then seen as weak and unresponsive. In addition, the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court races have shown that negative advertising can prove effective by painting your opponent in such a negative light that the voters forget or ignore the real issues (e.g. Butler v. Gableman).

    The tit-for-tat strategy discussed by Robert Axelrod in his article ” The Evolution of Cooperation” states that the tit-for-tat strategy is effective because it does exactly the opposite of what Obama posited. The tit-for-tat strategy is predictable, simple, it is not envious, does not defect first and reciprocates both cooperation and defection. For all of these reasons such a strategy is preferred.

    I would argue that the candidates have engaged not in a tit-for-tat strategy, but rather a chaotic advertising campaign of half-truths, which has resulted in greater distrust and further escalation of negative ads.

  2. The problem with applying tit-for-tat to a political campaign (especially a Presidential campaign) is that there is no opportunity for anything like a win-win. Either McCain wins, or Obama does. Further, there is little chance of a repeat of the contest. In 2012, a McCain-Obama matchup is extremely unlikely. It has happened: Adlai Stevenson ran against Eisenhower twice (1952 and ’56) and lost both times. Both were younger the second time around than McCain is now.

    Without a strong third-candidate who could stand aside and reap the reward of McCain and Obama’s mutual destruction, or some other possibility of a lose-lose (where voters reject both candidates) tit-for-tat serves only to incent both candidates to avoid outrageous extremes; proportionally attacking each other.

    The only thing that could pass for a win-win is that it is better for the Nation to have a “clean” contest. But for all the talk about patriotism, the last time a Presidential Candidate put their country’s welfare ahead of their own interest was, I think, Wendell Willkie (1944). You may have to google him.

  3. I don’t know if I agree with the argument that people believe data that confirms their own judgment. I’ve heard enough swooning over Obama and I generally understand his positions but I personally enjoy listening to McCain-Palin rallies more because I want to know what motivates their supporters. Regardless of what candidate you support, almost half the voting bloc will support the other guy; those people can’t all be stupid and I have to believe they have legitimate reasons for choosing their candidate. The Onion has a great piece on this:

  4. Regarding your comments: “This phenomenon [echo chamber phenomenon] is one of the reasons that watching the debates on CNN with the ‘undecided’ voters’ opinions scrolling at the bottom of the screen is addicting. I am really curious to see what those who are uncommitted think (and, at the same time, wondering who in the world these people are . . . )”

    Addicting might be the right word; has anyone studied how one’s perception of a debate is affected by those scrolling opinions? Or other indicators of supposedly “unbiased” commentary? If we don’t know who these people are, how do we know they are “uncommitted”? Might not those “squigglies” change one’s own perceptions?

    See also:

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