How Our Unconscious Votes

Key predictions of political psychology have held up pretty well on the campaign trail.

Give the democrats of West Virginia points for honesty. As Hillary Clinton romped to a landslide of 67 to 26 percent over Barack Obama in the primary, 20 percent of voters in exit polls said that race was an important factor in their choice—triple the percentage of earlier primaries. Of those, 80 percent voted for Clinton, making clear what they meant by "important." Obama's "black supremacist" minister concerns her, one woman told my colleague Suzanne Smalley. Another found Obama's "background, his heritage" suspicious. Both said they'd vote for John McCain over Obama.

The 2008 campaign has been subjected to more psychological analysis than Woody Allen. The top Democratic candidates asked psychology researchers for input, as did the national party, several state parties and the House and Senate Democratic caucuses. The 2007 book "The Political Brain," by psychologist Drew Westen of Emory University, became a must-read for strategists, and so far it looks as though they got their money's worth: key predictions of political psychology have held up pretty well on the campaign trail. Voters are driven more by emotions than by a cold-eyed, logical analysis of a candidate's record and positions; witness the legions of anti-immigration Republicans who pulled the lever for McCain. Ten-point plans (Clinton) don't move voters as powerfully as inspirational oratory (Obama). And unconscious motivations are stronger than conscious ones. This last finding might explain the growing role of racism in the campaign as well as the persistent "happiness gap" between liberals and conservatives—both of which will matter in November.

In March, when I wrote about research showing that people ignore race if another salient trait is emphasized, scientists agreed that Obama had to convey that "he is one of us." That "us" could be Democrats, family men, opponents of the Iraq invasion, enemies of politics as usual. Instead, opponents (and the media) began playing up his "otherness"—not wearing a flag pin, belonging to a black church, having an exotic name. And Obama began slipping, losing support among blue-collar white voters in particular.

It may seem paradoxical, but to stop the bleeding Obama needs to talk about race more often and more explicitly. "Only 3 or 4 percent of people today consciously endorse racist sentiments," says Westen. "But there are residues of prejudice at the unconscious level, and they aren't difficult to activate if you know how to do it. Our better angels on race tend to be our conscious rather than our unconscious values and emotions." It is those conscious brain circuits that Obama needs to keep activating, says Westen, "by talking about racism openly and attacking those who say white America will never vote for a black for president. Appeal to people's conscious values." That has a good chance of keeping unconscious racism at bay, brain studies show. Even more effective, combine direct talk about racism with an "I am like you" message, which leads the brain to focus on categories other than race. "Make it about 'us'," says Westen. "Talk about how we feel angry if a black fireman gets promoted ahead of us for no reason but affirmative action. Talk about how it's natural to look at someone different from us and ask, does he share my values, can he understand me?"

Intelligent adults don't like being told that something as important as their vote is strongly shaped by emotions and the unconscious. But if "The Selling of the President" didn't prove the point 40 years ago, an upcoming study showing the tight embrace of ideology and emotion might.

In a 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center, 47 percent of conservative Republicans described themselves as "very happy," but only 28 percent of liberal Democrats did. That led columnist George F. Will to write that "liberalism is a complicated and exacting, not to say grim and scolding, creed. And not one conducive to happiness." But political psychologist John Jost of New York University suspected that something else might explain the happiness gap. He and Jaime Napier analyzed data on people's self-reported level of contentment and their political views. The right-left happiness gap existed not only in the United States but in nine other countries, too. In part, that's because conservatives are more likely to be older, married and religious, all of which increase happiness.

But those traits explained only part of the gap. What accounted for the rest was how people viewed social and economic inequality, the scientists will report next month in the journal Psychological Science. People who agreed that "it is not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others," for instance, and "this country would be better off if we worried less about how equal people are," were happier than those who disagreed. The latter tend to be liberals, who are less likely than conservatives to see inequality as the result of a fair and legitimate system in which, say, people are losing their homes to foreclosure because they greedily got mortgages they couldn't afford/didn't deserve, not because they were misled by lenders. As foreclosures and gas prices rise between now and November, hitting have-nots harder than haves, the happiness gap will only grow. And if poli-psych teaches us anything, it is that profound unhappiness with the status quo leaves voters open to profound change.