Op-ed: A Cautionary Note About the Role of Emotion in Understanding the Polls

This is the fourth piece in a series of op-eds about polling in the election. Read the previous piece here. John E. Newhagen is an associate professor emeritus at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. 

The thing that makes me especially wary of this year’s polls is the role emotion will play. I have spent over 20 years studying how emotion can affect political attitudes and there is no question that it will be a big factor. But what I do not know is just how. Most of the research into the role of emotion in politics over the last two decades focused on the effects of fear in negative television ads. This is simply because fear has been the dominant strategy in political advertising for that long. The theory behind the research is that emotion serves a central role in helping humans decide whether to approach or avoid some object, in this case a political candidate. The idea behind fear appeals is that if an ad can associate fear with candidates, voters will avoid them.

Looking at Hillary Clinton’s early ads shows that she was playing the fear card pretty strongly. “Would you want Donald Trump with his thumb on the nuclear trigger?,” etc. But, it does not seem that approach worked out quite as well as she had hoped. Despite the warnings of Trump’s incompetence, his gains were relentless and the election is near a tossup in the polls. But the campaign has made its way from just being ugly to what I would call “The Big Ugly,” with the revelations of Trump’s coarse comments about women and the outright disregard for any semblance of decorum in the second debate. Now, in the last week before the election, the director of the FBI chose to announce that he was reopening the investigation into Clinton’s emails. That has changed all my assumptions about the role of emotion in this election.

The two operative emotions this time through seem to be anger and disgust.

Anger, perhaps the strongest emotion of all, suggests an aggressive approach: attack. At the beginning of the primary season I would not have predicted anger could be a useful tool in American political discourse. I was wrong. Donald Trump has capitalized on outright hatred for Hillary Clinton to galvanize his core support. The psychology of anger suggests that it imbues a very tight focus on the target, shutting out peripheral information as “noise.” Research verifies this is literally true in terms of what people remember when they are angry. People do not remember seeing objects in their peripheral vision, or remember facts and figures peripheral to arguments. Evolution would have it that this concentrates energy on the central dangerous target. This might explain why his core supporters are so unflappable. It is not that they evaluate the messages disparaging Trump and reject them. In a psychological sense, they literally don’t “hear” the dissonance and dismiss it as noise.


Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty Images)

Like fear, disgust suggests avoidance, but it is deeper seated in the human psyche. The idea behind fear is that a threat may be ephemeral – or short-lived – and go away. Disgust, in a primitive sense, is evoked in the presence of something deemed truly offensive, such as rotting flesh. Here the impulse is to avoid; the disgusting object is a persistent and poisonous mass that has to be removed. In this election, we are constantly reminded that both candidates have the lowest likability scores in modern politics and that voters are universally disgusted with the content and tone of both campaigns. This is horrific news for Clinton because if people do turn away from the election, she will undoubtedly be hurt by low turnout among her key supporters. But Trump has a problem too. After shirking off what would have been lethal gaffes for others earlier in his campaign, the lewd tapes describing women are sticking and even some of his most ardent supporters have had second thoughts. That does not mean they are going to support Clinton, but it could mean they just will not vote.

This is a fact both candidates surely understand – but the clock keeps ticking and it is winding down fast.

Disgust is probably a bigger problem for Hillary Clinton that Donald Trump because of its impact on turnout, but the generally felt sentiment may have lasting effects on the American political system we do not yet fully understand.

Disgust is probably a bigger problem for Clinton than for Trump because of its impact on turnout. But, the generally felt sentiment may have lasting effects on the American political system we do not yet fully understand.

Support for both candidates seems to wax and wane as each week goes by, and,  as of this writing, there is less than a week left to Election Day. One week, it seemed as if the race was tied and Trump was on a roll. Now Trump seems to have had his worst week ever after a horrible debate performance, revelations he may not have paid income tax in decades, and the surfacing of lewd and coarse tapes of his descriptions of women. But then FBI Director Comey drops his bomb. Worst yet for Clinton is the fact that what appeared to be a widening gap in support against Trump was narrowing again even before Comey’s unprecedented move.

The Washington Post reported this week that private polling, done by both parties, shows a precipitous drop not apparent in the polls news organizations publish, especially with regard to independent voters, moderate Republicans, and women without a college education. The Post, which endorsed Clinton extraordinarily early in the campaign cycle, wrote bold headlines about calls for Trump’s resignation that were apparently privately coming from Republican leaders. But Clinton did not seem to throw the knockout punch in the second debate that many expected. Trump did fairly well.

In any case, the thing that I find fascinating is that during almost the entire campaign the focus has been on Trump. And whether Clinton would make a better president or not, she just does not generate the kind of charisma Barack Obama does. Many Republicans woefully suggest Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush or John Kasich could have defeated her.

The fact that neither candidate seems to be energized and running for something – anything – like progressive Senator Bernie Sanders did, makes me think the key to turnout, or lack of it, will be based on how people feel, not based on what they think.

And figuring out who a likely voter is in 2016 is the biggest challenge political polling has had in generation.

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