The Psychology Of Voters Deciding Who To Support For President

Feb 2, 2016

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz with his wife and supporters celebrate his victory Monday night in Des Moines, Iowa. The Harding University research seeks to explain why some candidates like Cruz do well, while others like Huckabee have struggled.
Credit Chris Carlson/AP / NPR

As states begin voting to determine who will represent each party in the November presidential election, researchers are studying the psychology of how voters decide who to support.

A lab at Harding University in Searcy has been surveying groups of people on how they respond to the image of candidates and how they listen to the content of what's said during speeches and debates.

Dr. Jeremiah Sullins, an assistant professor of psychology, said the project has two overarching questions that they're working to answer.

"Do we use mental shortcuts or do we use heuristics when we actually judge a particular candidate? So, in other words, do we judge a book by its cover so to speak or are we actually interested in the content that’s being delivered by the candidate?"

The second question looks at linguistic characteristics of candidates' speeches and how they can influence voter behavior. Factors like trustworthiness, honesty and leadership ability are also taken into consideration.

Sullins says they're finding contradictions between the way voters make judgments about top-tier candidates and lower-tier candidates. He considers those in the top tier to be candidates who have consistently been leading in polls and are getting major media attention, like Republicans Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

We do use these snap judgments, at least for these top-tier candidates. So with all the top-tier candidates, when people look at just the images, they tend to have a lower favorability rating. However, when they go back and read actual speeches made by the candidates, and mind you we didn’t tell the participants whose speech they were reading, so it was just the content alone, we found that the favorability ratings just based on the speeches were significantly higher than the images. I found some striking similarities between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the amount of narrativity and their speaking style. So, for example, when you go back and we analyzed a large corpus of speeches looking at debates, announcement speeches, stump speeches, and we found that both Clinton and Trump have a story-like quality, have much higher rates of syntactic simplicity, so in other words, the way that they’re framing their sentences is at a much simpler level compared to Sanders, Rubio or Cruz, that has a broader appeal.

Sullins says he's still studying lower-tier candidates, like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, but finding that reactions from his survey groups are showing opposite reactions compared to more popular candidates. While they might have good favorability ratings, Sullins says respondents have shown negative reactions when reading their speeches and debate comments.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee filing his paperwork to run for president in his home state in November.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

"But that's an empirical question, something that we're looking into further," he said.

Huckabee only managed to get two percent of the vote during the Iowa Caucus Tuesday night and immediately announced he was suspending his presidential campaign. He won the state's Republican vote in 2008, but failed to secure support this time.

"The fact that he’s been around for a while, I think that might actually (have worked) to his disadvantage. I think that whenever... the longer you’re known, the more baggage you have, whether it be good or bad," Sullins said, "so I think in this political cycle, given it’s the election of outsiders, I think that worked against him."