Science: Human Behavior and Voting Patterns

Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 6, 2008 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Shankar Vedantam, who writes the Department of Human Behavior column, and political scientist Jason Berggren from the University of Georgia, were online Monday, Jan.6 at Noon ET to discuss different voting patterns among Democrats and Republicans.

Read today's column: Obama's Iowa Victory Fits Democratic Trend

Shankar will also take questions about his Monday Science Page story, which focuses on happiness research.

The transcript follows.


Shankar Vedantam: Welcome to out online chat -- today's discussion will look at voting behavior. I am pleased to be joined by political scientist Jason Berggren at the University of Georgia, who recently found that Democratic and Republican presidential aspirants often have different paths to getting nominated, with Republican voters generally favoring frontrunners and Democratic voters generally favoring underdogs. We will talk about what this means for the current race.

I would also be happy to take any questions on my other columns or on my science page article today looking at happiness research -- why people systematically fail to predict what will make them happy. In the interest of simplicity, we will focus on the voting behavior piece first and then go to questions on the other articles toward the end of this chat.


Shankar Vedantam: Could you give us a quick overview of how you came to these conclusions? What data did you look at and over what period of time?

Jason Berggren: I came to these conclusions by examining the Gallup polling patterns since 1972 (the year presidential nominations first became dependent upon the results in primaries and caucuses), who had raised the most money before Iowa, and the election results in Iowa, New Hampshire, and the first Southern primary (usually South Carolina).

Though there are many polls one could examine, Gallup is one of the oldest, highly respected, and considered one of the most reliable. To examine what type of patterns existed or not within each of the two major parties, I looked at the first Gallup poll available a year before Iowa, six months before Iowa, three months before, and the last poll before Iowa and compared them with the eventual winner. By doing this, we can see the various Republican and Democratic nomination contests at multiple observation points, see patterns across time, and determine whether or not the eventual winner was someone who emerged as the frontrunner early on or late.


Shankar Vedantam: Jason, to start us off with a couple of basics, could you give us a short overview of your finding that Republican nominations tend to go to the frontrunners, whereas Democratic nominations often go to candidates that few people took seriously a year before the Iowa caucuses?

Jason Berggren: Since 1972, the eventual Republican nominee has always been someone who was an established, well-known national figure who consistently led in the polls a year before the voting actually begun. This was true for Presidents Nixon, Ford, Governor Reagan in 1980, Vice President Bush in 1988 and 1992, Senator Dole in 1996, and Governor George W. Bush in 2000. Republican frontrunners may stumble after the voting begins by losing either Iowa or New Hampshire. Nevertheless, they regain their footing and go on to win. In short, the end looks like the beginning.

But since 1972, there has been a different storyline for Democrats. For Democrats, the eventual nominee is commonly a surprise. Someone not well-known, someone with not a lot of Washington-experience, someone who had single-digit poll figures. These are nominee are move from the back of the pack and emerge late. Early Democratic frontrunners often fall by the wayside or they decide after all not to run. Since 1972, only Vice Presidents Mondale and Gore may be said to have followed a "Republican" path to victory-leading early, leading throughout, and winning and the end.


Laurel: Dr. Berggren, do you subscribe to George Lakoff's theory that the differences between the parties is due to stern vs. nurturant parenting beliefs (as applied to the public, not one's own children)?

Jason Berggren: I'm not sure I agree with Lakoff's theory, but the two parties do seem to attract different people with different expectations from their leaders, with different levels of respect for their national leaders.


Shankar Vedantam: Do you think the historical trends you identified are playing out in the current Republican and Democratic nomination races? If so, how?

Jason Berggren:2008 is a fascinating year. No doubt about it. On the Republican side, like past years, we have seen a national frontrunner throughout the year before Iowa--Rudy Giuliani. John McCain was also from the beginning considered an early frontrunner.

Jason Berggren: Though Huckabee won in Iowa, watch John McCain. He may yet win this thing. If so, he will fit past patterns of Republican nominations going to previous runner-ups.

Jason Berggren: On the Democratic side, though I'm not surprised with Obama's Iowa win and his surge in New Hampshire, it is amazing to watch would could be Hillary Clinton's fall.

Jason Berggren: However, Senator Clinton is resourceful, skilled politician. I wouldn't count her out prematurely. After all, since 1972, there have been two Democratic nominees who lost both Iowa and New Hampshire and still emerged as the winner: George McGovern in 1972 and--BILL CLINTON IN 1992!


Bowie: The OP reported a couple of weeks ago that 40 percent of likely general election voters are essentially anti-Hilary, in that they'd vote for anyone rather than her. Has anyone ever overcome such a thing?

Jason Berggren: I am not aware of any nominee having such high personal negatives. There were unpopular nominees, such as incumbent presidents who won renomination (Carter-1980, Bush-1992). But overcoming such personal dislike? I can't think of a case for either party.


Boston: Is the electorate in the intoxicating early part of a relationship with Obama where we are swooning over his smooth talk and looks? Just like young kids in love, are we blowing off the reality check advice of our mother (Clinton in this case) as old and out of touch? What are the governing downsides for Obama (and second term election consequences) if he is not able to deliver on his sweet talk?

Shankar Vedantam: Politicians often seem different during an election and when they actually get into office and this is not just because they are different, but because our perceptions of them change over time. Let's take your two-term Obama scenario. Virtually by definition, Obama's inspirational appeal cannot last for eight years -- but I think it is difficult to predict how the nation's view of him, and how his own message and appeal will change. Many of Hillary Clinton's supporters doubtless feel Obama has not been subjected to the relentlessly tough scrutiny their candidate has faced. In Obama's defense, however, it should be noted that his appeal has had more staying power than many other candidates who seem promising at first and then fade quickly. As political scientist Wayne Steger noted in my column today, it is remarkable that so many Democrats have shown so much staying power -- historical pattens show the Democratic race typically being extremely volatile.

Shankar Vedantam: And we should not forget the role of historical events in our assessments of politicians. The Bush Presidency has been shaped by the events of Sept 11, 2001, in ways that simply could not have been predicted during the 2000 nomination races and the November presidential election.


New Orleans, La.: I have been exposed to a little politics and the strategy and analysis that goes into all of it. I understand that most elections are really a battle between the habitual voters. however, I was wondering what's the psyche/background of those that don't vote, or rarely to never vote. what's the conclusion on why they don't participate? Isn't high voter participation in this country 55-60 percent?

Jason Berggren: Yes, 55-60 percent voter turnout is great for the United States. Nearly 60 percent turned out in 2004. One common explanation for declining voter turnout is the weakening of political parties. In the 19th century, voter turnout was quite high--70, 80 percent or higher. Parties selected the nominees, raised the money, recruited the candidates. Ironically, with greater democratization, such as primaries, use of referenda, voter turnout has declined. Politics is more about person than party-agenda.


Rockville: But Iowa does, does it not, have a history of giving bumps to Midwesterners whose campaigns then go nowhere -- Bush the elder in 1980, Dole in 1988, Paul Simon, Gary Hart, Dick Gephart.

Jason Berggren: Yes, Iowa loves to support their neighbors--Simon, Gephardt, Harkin.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: I've read up on some of this before, I've read Schrum's book and one by Luntz. Other material by scientists and psychologists on behavior (happiness and gratitude).

Isn't most voting just in response to emotion? Put the cheese to the mouse and note what induces him to take it - isn't this the gist of campaigns? No one - well maybe five of us - votes on reason. It's what rings our dinner bell, that's all that counts.

"Dr. Pavlov, the Clinton campaign is calling."

In spite of what humans think about themselves, we're all just animals aligned upright. Isn't that about it?

Thanks much. Professional engineer in private practice

Shankar Vedantam: I am not sure I would entirely write off human agency and autonomy, but I think there are several small warehouses filled with experimental data that suggest people are influenced by a number of factors, including things they are not directly aware of.

For a more detailed look at the role of some of these factors in an election, take a look at a column I wrote around the time of the 2006 midterm elections.


Elections are supposed to be about issues. In tomorrow's election, those issues include the war in Iraq, terrorism and the spiraling cost of health care.

Hardly anyone mentions good looks and charisma, but a number of ingenious experiments show that how a politician looks and comes across to voters can make a huge difference in the outcome of an election.



Harrisburg, Pa.: Are Democrats more diverse in ethnic and social makeup than Republicans, and if so, does this create greater diversity of voting patterns among Democrats?

Jason Berggren: That is a key part of why Democrats and Republicans have different paths. Generally, the Republican Party is the more ethnically, ideologically homogeneous party. In fact, it has always been since the 1850s. No disrespect to anyone, but I sometimes refer to the GOP not as the Grand Old Party, but the Grand Old Protestants. Democrats, in contrast, since the early 1800s, has been the hodge-podge, catch-all party--Northerners, Southerners, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, pro-slavery, anti-slavery, drys and wets on alcohol. That original diversity has only intensified in the 20th and 21st centuries. Thus, it is not surprising, given historical patterns, that the Democratic field of 2008 is so diverse--a female, an African-American, a Hispanic, a white Southerner--and constitute its top-tier candidates.


Freising, Germany: Is there any accepted term or expression in the psychology or sociology professions for people who root for the underdog or for those that root for the favorite? Are there other behavioral traits that accompany these two types of people?

Shankar Vedantam: At least as far as U.S. elections are concerned, the research published in my column today suggests the answer to your first question appears to be "a Democrat" and the answer to your second question is, "a Republican."

Seriously, though, I am not familiar with research that has specifically explored the psyche of underdog-supporters versus favorites-supporters. Obviously, there is some part in each one of us that wants our candidate/sports team/horse to win and backing the favorite would be the most rational strategy to accomplish this. But there is also a part of us that likes underdogs to win, not least because it gives us the kind of bragging rights that don't come from backing favorites.

If you look at it another way, some of the difference may have to do with differing perceptions of the importance of change in our lives. By their very names, conservatives and progressives have different views about the importance and utility of change when it comes to politics and society.


Belleville, Ill.: Voting has nothing whatsoever to do with thinking. You don't reason your way to a decision. Rather, it is an emotional decision. The parties are tribes or gangs. You join a gang during your young adulthood, and then it takes an earthquake to move you off that tribe. I joined the Democrats during the Nixon thing, and would NEVER vote for ANY republican, since their basic underlying idea is simply alien to my thinking.

So, that's my political theory: You join a gang, and stick with it until you just get NAUSEATED by something.

Jason Berggren: For many voters, yes, voting is emotional. This is true particularly for president. The president is after all not just the head of the government, but head of state. The president is commonly seen as a symbol, a living embodiment of the country, someone who we pin our hopes and dreams onto. Few voters in Iowa last week, for instance, wanted someone who can win or someone who had the experience for the job. Rather most wanted a president who embodied change, who shared their values, who stood up for their beliefs.


Vestal, N.Y.: Why do so many pessimists consistently vote for right wing Republicans?

Shankar Vedantam: Um, can we see your data on this assertion disguised as a question?

Minus evidence, this sounds a little like the old, "when did you stop beating your wife?" kind of question.


Cleveland, Ohio: Here's my take: I am a Democrat and have been very interested in Obama for several years. I don't think Clinton is electable. And I really don't like her new tactic of trying to say Obama is all talk and no action.

I and other voters don't choose our candidates that lightly. Admittedly, Obama's record is shorter than Clinton's. But I like his life story, the things he's had to overcome, his professional and political careers, however brief. These things, his character, I guess, make a good candidate and good president. I trust he can do a great job despite a short resume -- it really is about more than just a laundry list of "action," in Obama's case, it's how he's lived his life, what he's fought for and how well that will translate to the White House. So, it's not quite as simple as just "liking" him -- it can be more complex.

Jason Berggren: There are many voters like you, I think. Being president is more than resume, it's biography, too. It's their passion, their beliefs, their believability. Carter ran on a promise to clean up government, not to tell a lie, promising a government of love. Clinton was the man from Hope. George W. promoted his "compassionate conservatism" and told of his simple pieties using plain talk. Kerry, too, offered biography--war service--and campaigned with fellow veterans. Powerfuls images. What got Kerry into trouble was the reminders of his Senate service, the sense that he could not take a position on an issue and stick to it.


Drew (Boston, Mass.): The vast majority of polls over the last few days have Senator Obama with an increasingly large lead over Senator Clinton. The conventional wisdom has been that N.H. independents will likely vote Democratic if Obama's candidacy is viable. Clearly, he is. However, is it possible that these poll numbers could fuel a perception that Obama is a lock to win the primary prompting independent voters to opt out of the Democratic primary and vote Republican in order to help John McCain? I'm interested in your thoughts.

Shankar Vedantam: Wow, you are asking about the psychological effects related to the psychological effects of polls. Independents will vote for Obama if he is viable, and the new polls show he is more than just viable in New Hampshire. But if these independents feel Obama's victory in the state is a lock, they may vote in the Republican primary instead, possibly causing Obama to lose in the process.

This was really the subject of my column last week. When voters are paying attention not just to politicians and candidates, but to each other (when they are voting strategically, in other words) you can get very complex feedback systems that amplify minor events and trends in completely unpredictable ways. What this means is that your scenario is plausible (along with many other scenarios) but there is absolutely no way to predict in advance which scenario will actually take place, any more than it is possible to predict which spark will set off a forest fire or which rolling pebble will start an avalanche.

See this link.


Tel Aviv, Israel: It may be interesting to note some similar difference, between asking behavioral scientists as commentators, or psychoanalysts-writers. If we use behavioral scientists, their comments will follow some pattern including frontline position-power-statistics. The commentary will remain in this dimension. If we ask psychoanalysts or writers, their comments will include logical paradox, sexuality, leaving power and the frontline position/underdog as some kind of make-believe. See for example the last novel of Norman Mailer on the origins of Hitler. Or, perhaps, Arthur Miller's comments on the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. He wrote that Clinton was the first black President of the United States. What would say behavioral scientists?

Shankar Vedantam: I think you are pointing out that when the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems tend to look like nails. But sometimes, things that don't look like nails are really nails, and it takes people who are expert in a discipline to show the rest of us a different way of looking at things. For my own part, I generally believe in the wisdom of hearing from a number of different points of view -- the truth does not always lie in the middle position (in fact, it is usually not in the middle position) but hearing different points of view helps protect you against certitude, which I think is often the biggest problem.


Shankar Vedantam: I want to take a couple of questions that have come in on the other story I had in the paper today, but first I wanted to thank Jason Berggren for talking with us today.

I just also realized that, for his trouble, we misspelled Jason's last name in the chat -- it is Berggren, not Breggren. Sorry, Jason. We will correct the record soon.


Alexandria, Va.: Your write today that "Keeping your options open won't necessarily make you happier."

What about the Myers-Briggs spread of personality types, from the "judging" to the "perceptive" which translate as decisive and opportunistic (in the good sense): those who like to (must) plan ahead versus those who like to smell the flowers, remain open to possibilities, hold on to spontaneity.

(As a "J", I much prefer good plans anchoring a more or less certain future -- laced with moments of spontaneous sybaritic leaps -- to remaining in either drifting indecision or confused inability to decide.) But 'Ps" I know hate being tied down.

Please comment.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the question.

The data in the story about happiness was obtained from random samples of people, so it would suggest the results are broadly applicable. Presumably, there are some people for whom closing off options will result in more happiness and others for whom it will result in a little less happiness, but overall, it appears most people over-value the importance of choice and keeping their options open. It intuitively feels like it is likely to make us happy, because we have more time to figure out which option is the ideal one, but we forget that in the process of extending our decisions, we are not enjoying the fruits of a decision that is done and past.

Or as Dan Gilbert put it: "The benefits of freedom are clear to everyone but what is not clear to everyone are the costs."


Derwood, Md.: I enjoyed reading the Get Happy story. As someone who has the job title "Director of Happiness" I know of many ways to find happiness. I know I would enjoy meeting with Daniel Gilbert.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks so much for your note.


Shankar Vedantam: Thanks so much to everyone for joining our chat today.

I would be delighted to receive any other feedback at


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