Hearts and Minds: Voters' Feelings About the Candidates

The thrill is gone.

Maybe voters are simply tired of the seemingly endless campaign for the Democratic nomination. Or maybe their excitement about the new (Barack Obama), the suddenly emoting (Hillary Clinton, in New Hampshire) or the coming-back-from the-politically-dead (John McCain) can’t last forever. But whatever the reason, voters are feeling much less excitement and fewer positive emotions about all three of the remaining presidential candidates than they once did, finds a poll that, uniquely, measures voters’ emotional reactions.

If the trend continues, that’s bad news for the candidates, because research keeps showing that voters base their decisions more on their hearts than their heads and are easily swayed by anxiety, fear and other negative emotions. Latest evidence: anyone who feels—the key word—that Obama doesn’t understand “people like me” because he said that voters embittered about their economic plight “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” If that loses him any votes, it will not be because of a rational analysis of his record and positions, but because of how it made people feel about him.

Anyway, a company called AdSam measures what it calls “Emotional Temperature,” which gauges people’s emotional engagement with a product, website or advertisement. Since, as we all know from Joe McGinniss’s 1969 book, “The Selling of the President, 1968,” candidates are marketed and sold just like detergent, the same technique should work with politicians.

In its latest study, AdSam measured how strongly voters feel about each candidate, and how engaging they find them. Since last September, Clinton’s “emotional temperature has been on a continual steep decline with voters,” says AdSam president Jon Morris, a professor at the University of Florida, dropping from 93 to 70 (where 173 is how emotionally positive voters say they would like to feel about a candidate). “Her emotional cool-off is a sign that she is not relevant and not making connections with voters. This is a significant barrier for her and will be very difficult for her to turn around.”

Clinton trails both McCain and Obama, whose emotional temperatures are very similar (85 and 88, respectively, this month) and have not fallen off a cliff the way Clinton’s has. Obama dropped 8 points from September to January (97 to 89), and has stayed at about that “temperature” since. McCain moved up 9 points from September to January (79 to 88), but is down 3 points since.

Obama generates the most positive emotional response among Democrats (beating Clinton 120 to 97) and beats McCain among Independents (97 to 81), with Clinton at 74 among Independents. McCain has finally excited and united Republicans, however, zooming from 101 last September to 145 now.

Clinton is leaving more voters cold, says Morris. Compared to last September or even January, fewer voters feel “interested/excited” by her, while more feel “reluctant,” “uninterested/unexcited” and even “disgusted.” The biggest reason for the turnaround, Morris finds, is that more voters perceive Clinton as dishonest.

Obama is making more Democrats “interested/excited” now than he did in January, but more are also feeling “ambivalent” about him. In follow-up interviews, voters use words such as “truthful,” “honest,” “trust” and “inspirational,” but more and more cite his scant experience on the national stage. The Illinois senator has further to go with Independents: 21 percent feel strong positive emotions about him, compared to 32 percent last September. Equally worrisome, 28 percent now feel “ambivalent,” the most of any emotion among Independents asked about Obama.

More Democrats (20 percent) were disgusted by Clinton’s dishonesty about coming under fire during a trip to Bosnia than by Obama’s links to his controversial pastor (10 percent). We'll see how this translates into votes in Pennsylvania next Tuesday.