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.