How Politicians Scare Voters to Their Side

The art of winning over the libertarian, veteran, Medicare-recipient parent

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Barack Obama speaks during a rally at Veterans Memorial Park October 18, 2012 in Manchester, New Hampshire.

What do you do if you’re a politician trying to reach a slice of the electorate with some obvious reasons to support you, but other reasons to oppose you? Try scaring them.

Think back to the 2004 election, when a new breed of voter emerged: the “Security Mom.” These largely suburban women leaned left on social and economic issues. But they were also parents who, just three years after 9/11, worried about terrorism and its potential threat to their children. Exit polls showed that George W. Bush‘s emphasis on the terror threat, including warnings that Democratic policies would make America less safe, played a crucial role in pushing security moms to the GOP column and assisting with Bush’s narrow re-election.

Now comes a new study from the Journal of Politics showing how political rhetoric, including invocations of danger and fear, can be a strong factor for voters with conflicting political attitudes.

For the study, Samara Klar of the University of Arizona explored “identity primes”–attempts to exploit the different self-definitions and affiliations that shape our political preferences. One person might be a veteran, Libertarian, parent and Social Security recipient all at once–trying to balance and prioritize the competing impulses each of those categories brings.  “Priming” an identity can be as simple as mentioning it, reminding people they’re part of a certain group, as when Obama gives a shout out to “folks on Social Security” or “our nation’s veterans.”

Klar explored what happens when political rhetoric primes two different parts of a person’s identity. Her case study: Democrats typically support spending more money to extend social services; parents typically support reducing the deficit, often mindful of their children’s fiscal future. So how does the Democratic parent resolve this internal conflict? Klar found that it can depend on how politicians frame the argument.

One approach is positive and empowering. Klar cites Obama declaring that the government “extended Pell Grants for million of people, including millions of young women.” This reminds young women that they’re part of a distinct demographic, suggests that young women are important (Obama wanted to do something for them) and that the government is responding to them (he did it, and they in particular are better off). Klar calls this an “efficacy prime.”

But the primes can also come in the form of threats. Klar asked 428 Democratic parents in Illinois’ 9th District for their views on social services and the deficit. She found that if the respondents’ Democratic beliefs were threatened–for instance by the specter of big budget cuts impacting people in need–they’d insist that social welfare programs must be protected. If their role as a parent was threatened, however, with talk of future generations bearing a painful debt burden, the respondents were more likely to support deficit reduction. This was the case even when the respondents were given supportive “efficacy” primes too, like reading a statement designed to make them feel empowered as Democrats right before one designed to make them feel concerned as parents.

“The threatening prime appears to increase worry, or anxiety,” Klar writes, and the effect of that feeling becomes “an insurmountable counterweight” in situations where two parts of a person’s identity are at odds on policy. The message for speechwriters? Fear is a great motivator.

54 comments
fitty_three
fitty_three

Isn't "Libertarian, veteran, Medicare recipient parent" a mix of both oxymoronic and hypocritical?

Let's not get to worked up here, as they are all doubtlessly in the insane GOP camp.

destor23
destor23

"...if the respondents’ Democratic beliefs were threatened–for instance by the specter of big budget cuts impacting people in need–they’d insist that social welfare programs must be protected. If their role as a parent was threatened, however, with talk of future generations bearing a painful debt burden, the respondents were more likely to support deficit reduction."

This is ridiculous.  Social programs and the social safety net enable economic growth, economic growth keeps debt to GDP ratios stable and, in aggregate, future generations do not bear the burden of debt, they refinance it.  This is all rhetoric devoid of fact.

drudown
drudown

Similar to this incessant fear mongering, an equally notable, yet more subtle, dynamic in our politics in the United States touch and concerns the blatant substitution of special interest agendas under the aegis of some alleged "ideology"( e.g., Libertarianism) when, in fact, it is merely a money or power grab by market players. By way of example, just as the invasion of Iraq was purposely predicated on false pretenses (e.g., a fictitious nexus between Saddam and 9/11) in order to enrich War Profiteers...it served an ancillary, arguably more corrupt agenda. It displaced our trusted European Allies' (e.g., France) economic/strategic interests (i.e., Iraqi oil) and- lo and behold- now you-know-who is the beneficiary...and it is not us. The People of the United States, of course, are subjected to higher Energy prices on account of the "illusory" disruption in "supply" when, in fact, the larger economic downturn works and is, i.e., "demand" is lower and prices should fall. Of course, just as the "fear tactics" that touch and concern Al Qaeda's purported ability to materially interfere with our Energy supply/needs have been cited to "push through" harmful "fracking" projects (e.g., leaking methane, coupled with carcinogenic "pre-fracking" fluids injected into the groundwater, foreseeably kills all organisms in the immediate vicinity; see, e.g., 'Gasland')...now we see CNN running "fear tactics" about Nuclear Plants being (what else) "very vulnerable" to "terrorist attacks". Yet once the Reagan Administration "killed" the Fairness Act, the Media (e.g., cable "news") is just a forum for paid "expert witnesses" to (what else) falsely claim that, inter alia,  "fracking" is better Energy alternative given the perils of impending Climate Change ...with no "fact check" that this is completely false on account of methane escaping into the atmosphere, i.e., thereby exacerbating the Greenhouse Effect. Moreover, the People are wrongly conditioned to uncritically adopt the unfounded position that, what, simply because "fracking" can create jobs- the proven reality that "fracking" is egregiously harmful to real property, all living things and defiles other, scarcer natural resources (i.e., potable water) are somehow tertiary concerns?

Ah, me...the "sell out" GOP wants the People to RUIN our own beautiful country so, what, we can sell the "cheap" natural gas to Asia?

Pity the process results in forced euthanasia.

The easiest means to uncover the GOP Congress' treachery is to merely follow the "ghost written" Legislation that purports to "undo" consumer protections simply because of the K Street culture of corruption through campaign contributions

The People need to vote out the obstructionist GOP Congress- one that just turns its head- if market players "buy" laws against our interests, even the result a barren wasteland where all the life is dead.

"To set oneself in the right direction...this is a blessing supreme." - the Buddha

anti-government
anti-government

It's too bad people are so stupid.

Democracy is a good idea in theory but manipulative politicos seem able to get and keep power through fearmongering.

Democracy won't work unless people learn how to think for themselves. I look at some of the absurd techniques that have been used to blind people to their best interests in Presidential elections (starting with the infamous Log Cabin & Hard Cider campaign of 1840) and I tremble for the future of democracy.

JaniceS88
JaniceS88

According to a report this morning, during the taping of his appearance on "The View" yesterday from Martha's Vinyard, President Obama reluctantly admitted, "the white part of me is racist." Now, I'm sure that's going to scare voters, but to what end exactly? http://goo.gl/Nr2x1B

jmac
jmac

Fear and lies.   Bush lied about the threat of Saddam as he veered from the group that took down our towers and used fear to gain votes.   It's a lie that our current debt will be passed on to our children unless we drastically cut social programs.  History has proven that.   We increased social benefits after World War II.   We educated our soldiers on our dime.  It paid off.   Clinton raised taxes on the wealthy and brought down our deficit.  Obama has brought down our deficit. 

Obviously, the fear and lying isn't working as the GOP has lost the popular vote in the last five of six presidential elections.   Hopefully, this next mid-term will show that trend continuing.  


Yoshi
Yoshi

So what's "new" here? Politicians stock and trade is fear of one sort or another. It seems there is always a boogeyman or three waiting in the wings (or teleprompter). It's a large component of the news media as well. It's a very profitable arm of the news media "industry". FEAR! Roosevelt was correct, and the owners have learned that lesson well.

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

Speaking of scary, I just had 10 pounds of live crawfish delivered. I gave them a rinse and boy did they wake up mad! Kind of creepy seeing them poke through the mesh bag.

It's okay little guys, soon you will be in a better place-my stomach. 

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

Fear is funny thing. Just consider how many times paulie would throw around the phrase "Muslim Brotherhood" as if he fully expected that others here would react to the phrase in the same way he does. 

sacredh
sacredh

I think the republicans are coming close to the point where they're going to start campaigning on, "Vote for me and I'll take my meds".

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

@fitty_three 

Yeah, that's like Ayn Rand accepting Social Security and Medicare since those programs are outright socialism / collectivism and steal money from citizens at the point of a gun. Oh, wait....

SarahConfran
SarahConfran

Parents are always mindful of their children in really any situation. If you phrase a question to suggest social programs either currently help or in the future could help their children the parent is more likely to be in favor of it. If the question is phrased to suggest social programs' cost is either currently dentramental or could be bad for their child in the future than the parent is more likely to oppose the programs. How questions are phrased are really important. We often want to think as individuals we are too smart to be influenced by something like phrasing but no one is. We can all be swayed.

jcapan
jcapan

@Paul,nnto Wow, I hadn't heard that but I've been pretty out of the loop of late. Maybe our media is adversarial--to those holding the powerful accountable for their batsh-t insane policies. 


O's still clinging to some narrowing hopes for another postseason. Johnson giving us a chance to lose every time out, our record in one run/extra innings nothing like last year, but surprisingly I'm happier with our starting 5 and our entire order this year. BIG series with Tampa Bay starting tomorrow.

sacredh
sacredh

@Paul,nnto  I'm seriously considering deleting my tweets calling for drone strikes on the RNC. They were in semi-poor taste and not representative of my fellow liberals. Not all of my fellow liberals, but some. Maybe not many. I could be wrong.

manlyman
manlyman

Drudown, you are full of it, and full of yourself. Your arrogance is off the charts. "Greenhouse gasses", and other such nonsense phrasiology are words of an enemy that is out to destroy our freedom and way of life and wellbeing. Take your totally debunked "gasland" crap and choke on it. No sane freethinking human would be stupid enough to fall for that garbage, and neither do you, which puts you in the camp of the swindler and the forktongued. I would beat you into the ground if I could, for you are no different than the common thief who who would steal the food from my family's table.

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

@JaniceS88 Please tell me you know that is a parody page, like The Onion.  Wait, you know The Onion is a parody too, right?

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@jmac"Fear and lies."

Surely you don't mean to undermine another perfectly good "both sides do it" false equivalency Beltway media meme by pointing out that 9/11 scaremongering over false "potential threat[s] to...children," isn't at all the same thing as describing the GOP's plans to try to dismantle the social safety net.

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

@jmac They appeal to a smaller and smaller base.  Now that the TPers run the republicans I wonder how long traditional business support they have had will last.

The House goes crazy on the debt ceiling and even the moneyed republicans will bail.

sacredh
sacredh

@jmac, I think the electorat now is in two camps. Those that say "Amen" to anything the GOP says and those that say "BS".

yshabazz2
yshabazz2

Your posting has no relevance to this article....but if you make me some gumbo I forgive you.

Sue_N
Sue_N

@Paul,nnto Years ago, when I was probably 12 or 13, my sister and I spent a couple of weeks in the summer with an aunt in Beaumont. A summer in Beaumont meant crabbing. A group of us went down to the Gulf, spent the day catching enough crabs for what we thought was a feast and took them back home to cook.

We got the pots of water seasoned and boiling, put the crabs in … and watched in horror as they climbed right back out. Before we knew it, we had crabs all over the kitchen and living room floor! It was hysterical. We kids were squealing and jumping on the furniture to escape the menace, and the grownups were trying to corral the suckers with anything and everything at hand. I can still see my aunt, armed with a broom and a dust pan, doing battle with the little beasts. We finally managed to capture and cook them all.

My family has laughed about that for almost 40 years now. It's one of those perfect childhood memories.

Sue_N
Sue_N

@sacredh I'm waiting for "Vote for us OR DIE!!!11!"

destor23
destor23

@SarahConfran Phrasing is important, yes, but it should not obscure the truth.  All we have is the phrasing, it seems.  But the truth of this example isn't even more complex, it's just holistic -- "your children are better off for these programs now and they will not, in fact, suffer to pay for them later."  That is demonstrable and the message that should be delivered.

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

@jcapan @Paul,nnto  Hey JC--the queer part of that nonsense is that Grunwald is a pretty good reporter. His book, "The New New Deal", was almost Suskind like in its on the record sources. 

Stupid post, not sure of the motivation. As I put above-Tweeting is, or at least can be, idiotic. 

Your Birds are in a very good place. 2 1/2 out of the WC and as we have observed getting in is all that matters. Last year's one run game record was insane.  My boys continue to do what they do...but Google Bryan Buxton and Miguel Sano and you can see why we may renew our tickets for the 9th year in a row.

Hope all is well with you and your (rapidly not) little one. 

The cuter P, in a moment of madness, accepted my proposal so we'll be "legal" next spring.


sacredh
sacredh

Now that I've had a minute to think about it, maybe the drones strikes on the RNC isn't such a bad idea after all. I will condemn myself afterwards though.

drudown
drudown

@manlyman 

You are just a poser PR loser trying to condition the People to, what, disregard Science? 

Conspicuously, you have no substantive rebuttal to the merits and predictably devolve into personal attacks.

As for being a physical threat to me? That is as far-fetched as your 'the documentary Gasland is garbage' propaganda. 

But I'm sure all the AMERICANS living in TX and PA that were displaced by "fracking" are "just elated" that the reason it moved forward is so that traitors like you and the Market Players can "sell cheap natural gas" to China.

Some patriot you are.

"So hot? my poor little sir." - Emerson

fitty_three
fitty_three

@manlyman 

How stupid are you?

Look up 'greenhouse gas' and you'll find that that knowledge predates teh GOP.

As for stealing from your table, I wouldn't be surprised if there was any family, you would have them eat with the dog.

Hope you have property that's 2 m above MSL...

jmac
jmac

@Paul,nnto @jmac That's a good question - when will they lose business support.    Yet Wall Street is still in denial on it's role in our near economic collapse.   The Chamber of Commerce is still solidly Republican.   They seem to have a hard time understanding that the economy is the working man, not the man playing casino on Wall Street.    The DOW is not a good economic indicator - except for the very wealthy.   

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

@yshabazz2 That's an easy fix- roux plus trinity plus andouille plus chicken plus homemade chicken stock, plus rice.

And even when I am on topic I have no relevance so no offense taken. 

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@Sue_N Classic East Coast summer memory. All that was missing was the hysterical dog.

jmac
jmac

@Sue_N @sacredh   Tom Delay basically did that with Wall Street.   He was so angry they still gave to both sides he threatened them with near death.  

jcapan
jcapan

@Paul,nnto @jcapan Yeah, the record in close games (in large part due to last year's shutdown pen) is the difference between winning series and not. But, yes, the glass half full says we're in a good place--upcoming schedule is beyond brutal, so the better teams will get through. Funny how one's expectations/what makes for disappointment can change so quickly vis a vis 2 years.

Yeah, the kid will--to my astonishment--turn 4 this October, the day after I get back from a week of (mostly) solo bliss in the Sierra Nevada/LA. 

And sincerest congrats to your fiancee for making an honest man of you, finally. 

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

@Sue_N @shepherdwong So...10 pounds of late season (thus smaller) craw fish is A LOT of bugs. Filled two large bowls after cleaning..they were crawling out of the top-I assume I broke up families and they were trying to reunite-reaching across.

Crazy.

All so good...and now I reek of crawfish from standing over the boil. I say it's a good thing, the cuter P disagrees.

Sue_N
Sue_N

@shepherdwong @Sue_N Oh, we actually had a dog! My aunt's Doberman, Joker., barking his head off. I just can't remember whether he was scared of them or thought it was a game.

Even for a Doberman he was big, and the sweetest dog who ever lived. Unless you were somebody he didn't know and came into the yard while we were playing. Then he got scary in a heartbeat. And he loved Dairy Queen ice cream.

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

@sacredh @Paul,nnto Timing is coincidental. Just a good day to get 60 people together. Mixing of the families for the first time on that big a scale.