I Second That Emotion
Over the past month, I have written several posts dealing with the subject of how voters choose the candidate for whom they will vote. I have argued that, for all the talk about the importance of issue positions, the choice is primarily driven by a gut-level decision that voters make about which candidate seems the most presidential. They do so by constantly updating their personal assessment of candidate traits like moral character, leadership ability, personal experience, and even physical appearance, as these characteristics gradually come into focus over the course of the campaign season. The decision is, in essence, an intuitive and emotional voter response to the manner in which the candidates portray themselves, during endless months on the campaign trail, rather than the outcome of a rational comparison of voter and candidate preferences on various policy issues.
Now, Time has just released the first installment in its How America Decides election-year survey. The results suggest that this voter calculus is at work in Hillary Clinton’s decline in Iowa, despite her continued strength in the polls nationally. Mark Halperin and Amy Sullivan write:
Strikingly, the very advantages that Clinton enjoys elsewhere — being seen as a strong leader with the most electability — dissipate in Iowa. And she trails far behind Obama and John Edwards in perceptions that she has strong moral character, is inspiring and says what she believes. Voters also express emotional reactions to candidates, and on that front, Clinton's numbers in Iowa look different as well. She generates less hope and pride in Iowa than in New Hampshire — or the nation as a whole — and those Iowans who say she makes them feel afraid are far less likely to support her than are their counterparts at the national level.
Most importantly, the Time piece adds an interesting layer to my analysis, which is the idea that the retail politics experience in places like Iowa and New Hampshire exerts a profound influence on how voters update their assessment of candidate traits, in ways that do not necessarily percolate up to the national level. You can see this dynamic clearly at work in the data, using Time’s nifty interactive feature, which allows you to compare survey results across a range of candidate traits and voter emotions in Iowa, New Hampshire, and nationally. Since the results of these early contests will no doubt influence how voters in subsequent primary and caucus states update their own candidate assessments, these gaps in voter reaction should be of genuine concern to the frontrunners in both parties.
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