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Politics as Mass-Trauma Event

Campaigns are working hard to turn upheaval in Americans’ lives into votes.

Target-ing: Pols could learn a lot from the retail giant.(AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

photo of Reid Wilson
February 29, 2012

How did you buy the tube of toothpaste that sits next to your sink? Odds are, it’s become such a routine procedure that you don’t even think about it: You probably went to the same store you always do and picked up the same brand you always do. The act of purchasing toothpaste, for most people, has become routine—a habit we barely think about.

That’s just one example that Charles Duhigg, the New York Times reporter who wrote the excellent book The Power of Habit, uses to demonstrate how habits take over our lives—and how they can be used to sell us on something, whether it’s a new kind of Crest or, as some political strategists are finding out, a new presidential candidate. As we understand more about why we do what we do, understanding and manipulating our habits is increasingly on the cutting edge of behavioral and market research.

Although political campaigns aren’t quite as scientifically advanced and don’t have the same money to invest in advertising as do multinational mega-corporations, strategists behind President Obama’s reelection bid and Mitt Romney’s campaign are beginning to understand what our habits say about our voting patterns, and to determine which individuals are susceptible to persuasion. Instead of exploiting a habit to sell a product, though, they are increasingly looking for the rare moment in which a voter is vulnerable to changing his or her mind.


The key to that brief moment when someone is open to persuasion, in both commercial and political marketing, is trauma.

Obama and the eventual Republican nominee will spend much of their money this year on turning out their respective bases. But a major expenditure will also be aimed at finding and persuading voters truly open to both sides. The undecided few tend to be people who are not tuned in to politics; greater exposure to political discourse leads many voters to pick a side, while those who don’t keep up with the news as much tend to have more malleable views.

At some point, those voters tune in, and when they do, the campaigns go to work, just as a corporation seeking a new customer would. “What consumer-facing brands are always trying to do is, ‘Can I identify the consumer who is open to change?’ ” said Gareth Schweitzer, president of Kelton Global, a leading market-research firm.

Duhigg spotlighted Target, which has focused research on identifying expectant mothers. The giant retailer, he writes, aims to take advantage of one of the few times when a consumer’s habits are open to change—a moment of trauma in one’s life, such as the birth of a child, buying a house, getting married or getting divorced. Habits, at those moments of upheaval, are susceptible to change.

In politics, experts are still sorting out when those traumatic moments occur. Most agree that a presidential campaign has a few defining moments. Some of these, like debates, are predictable: President George W. Bush made Vice President Al Gore look silly when Gore encroached on Bush’s space in 2000, while Michael Dukakis in 1988 flubbed an opportunity with a banal answer to a debate question about the death penalty. More recently, Rick Perry effectively wrote himself out of the GOP presidential hunt when he couldn’t remember which federal agencies he wanted to shutter.

Other change catalysts are less about a single moment than about broader narratives—Sen. John Kerry as an out-of-touch, wind-surfing flip-flopper; President George H.W. Bush as a sheltered, amazed-by-modern-technology-and-the-price-of-milk incumbent. Some Republicans fear that Romney, with his poorly timed comments about his wife’s multiple cars and his friends who own NASCAR teams, is helping Democrats set the same trap should he become the nominee.

“I don’t think we can know in advance what those events will be,” said Jon McHenry, a Republican pollster. “Debates are likely sources, but big economic or security events could pop up at any time. I’ve said hundreds of times at this point that voters are all about the economy, but if Israel launches [an attack] against Iran in two months, Obama’s reaction may be the only thing that matters this year.”

A voter’s attitude is much more susceptible to change over the longer term. A woman who lives by herself in an urban area is, most likely, a Democratic voter; if she marries, has children, and moves to the suburbs, the likelihood that she’ll vote Republican increases substantially.

But even most of those who call themselves independents lean toward one side or the other. “Most people decide early, whether they know it or not,” Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said. “They go with long-standing partisan and ideological dispositions.”

Obama hired Rayid Ghani, a habit specialist and data-mining expert at Accenture; Republican strategists such as Alex Gage and Blaise Hazelwood do extensive micro-targeting research aimed at identifying persuadable voters.

The question that both sides wrestle with is how to speed that transition, how to take advantage of the moment at which a voter reevaluates his or her political allegiances. As Duhigg writes, Target has found its moment. It’s only a matter of time until the most sophisticated campaigns do the same.

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