In politics, we tend to think in terms of issues and policies. And as the dust begins to settle on the midterm elections, pollsters and pundits have begun to settle on the meaning of the elections: "Voters were angry about Iraq," or "Voters were disgusted by corruption in Washington," or the economy finally mattered.
Just six months ago, the electorate was split on Iraq, corruption had little traction, and even pocketbook issues were off the radar screen. What changed? My own research as a psychologist -- and a close political observer -- as well as a close reading of 40 years of electoral history, suggests that, in the final analysis, what matters most in elections is what voters are feeling -- whether they're excited, proud, angry, or afraid. Iraq didn't suddenly become a quagmire. Jack Abramoff didn't suddenly start passing around a little cash. A stagnant minimum wage didn't suddenly start pinching working families. Feelings matter because they push voters' buttons -- and in turn determine the buttons voters push.
In the 2006 election, the Democrats won because they finally connected on a visceral level, and the twin towers that had been working for Republicans since 9-11 -- fear and hate -- just weren't smoldering anymore.
Winning States of Mind
With all our focus on issues and policy debates, on red states and blue states, what's easy to forget is the voters' state of mind. Our brains are filled with networks of associations -- bundles of thoughts, feelings, images, and ideas that have become connected over time, so that activation of one part of a network activates the rest. When a politician says "liberal," activation spreads in voters' brains to whatever is associated with it. For most Americans, that means elite, tax and spend, out of touch, Massachusetts, and a whole host of associations that activate negative emotions.
That's branding. It's branding so effective that no Democratic presidential nominee has dared call himself a liberal in over 20 years -- and no self-proclaimed liberal has won in over four decades. If you shape voters' networks, you shape their feelings. And if you shape their feelings, you win elections.
Shaping the networks that shape the electoral landscape is about linking one thought, idea, image, or feeling to another. Branding is nothing but effective dot-connecting. Republicans kept winning because they have been connecting the dots so successfully that even good progressives can't even say "liberal" without cringing. The Republicans lost this election because they were no longer the only ones connecting the dots.
The Iraq War was a disaster in June, but it wasn't an electoral disaster for the right until the Democrats, emboldened by polls, more critical media coverage, and Ned Lamont's initially successful anti-war insurgency in August, began to connect the dots -- for example, to the idea of a civil war. Once that dot started to become connected in voters' minds, it followed that our soldiers were fighting in someone else's civil war. And then voters got angry.
It also helped that the media, and then the Democrats, began challenging the crucial connection between two dots the Republicans had connected, unchallenged, since 2002, under the rubric of the "war on terror": Saddam (hence Iraq) and Osama (hence terrorism). The Democrats connected the dots to suggest that Bush's failure on Iraq made him untrustworthy on terrorism. Conversely, if Iraq wasn't connected to the "war on terror," then what were we doing in Iraq? Until late in the summer of 2006, the Republicans were the only ones telling a coherent story -- on Iraq, terrorism, or virtually anything else that mattered to the public.
Connecting the Dots
It is no accident that the Democratic Party began to run away with the election only in October, when its candidates all over the country ran ad after ad connecting Republican candidates to their increasingly unpopular president. Republicans tried to run, but they couldn't hide from the association. Aristotle articulated the basic principle 2,300 years ago: If people experience two things together enough times, they will associate them. And what both Pavlov and Freud recognized was that if they associate them strongly enough, the feelings activated by one will be activated by the other.
Some of the most effective Democratic ads were the ones that not only linked the president and his unpopular war with a local candidate but used film clips of the candidate using phrases such as "stay the course" that were already indelibly linked to George W. Bush. Equally effective were ads that connected inconvenient dots -- such as an ad run by Bob Casey against Rick Santorum, versions of which ultimately ran all over the country, which included the following narration and images:
Narrator: Rick Santorum's record? [An image of Santorum appears, against the backdrop of the Capitol, with words superimposed to underscore the narration] Voted three times to give himself a pay raise [An image appears of a working-class woman hard at work] while voting 13 times against raising the minimum wage. [An image appears of a smiling Santorum sitting next to a grinning George Bush, with words again underscoring the narrative] And he votes 98 percent of the time with George Bush. Even to privatize Social Security.
What made this ad so powerful were three features. First, it connected the dots between Santorum's generosity to himself and his lack of generosity to the hard-working men and women of Pennsylvania. Each of those facts alone carried little weight for many voters. But put them together, and you begin putting together a network that tells a story about the kind of person who would raise his own salary by more money than a person working 40 hours a week even earns.
Second, networks link more than words. The most powerful networks -- the ones most likely to stick in voters' minds and to elicit emotion -- are the ones that link words and ideas with visual images (e.g., the hard-working woman on top of whom were superimposed the words, "Voted 13 Times Against Raising the Minimum Wage") and sounds (e.g., the narrator's voice and inflection, as he contrasted Santorum's pay raise with the minimum wage, underscoring the juxtaposition).
Third, whereas Democrats have often numbed the electorate with facts and figures, the 98 percent figure linked Santorum so powerfully to Bush that it made clear, as Casey put it in an interview on Meet the Press, "Tim, when you have two politicians in Washington that agree 98 percent of the time, one of them's really not necessary."
Flying Hate Below the Radar
On Election Day, Democrats outflanked Republicans in every closely contested Senate race except one: Tennessee. At first blush, this is surprising, given that Harold Ford Jr., like so many of the other candidates who defeated Republican incumbents (Bob Casey, Sherrod Brown, and Claire McCaskill, for example), was an emotionally compelling candidate. However, if we take a look at the way the Republicans used a sophisticated understanding of how networks operate, we can see both the limits of conventional analyses of the ad campaign ("Was it racist, or wasn't it?") that led to the rapid decline in Ford's poll numbers, and what his campaign might have done to counteract it.
The infamous ad, created by a prot¨¦g¨¦ of Karl Rove, was actually part of a broader stealth campaign orchestrated by now Senator-elect Bob Corker and the Republican National Committee. The stealth attack, designed to fly far enough below the radar to allow "plausible deniability" of racist intent, capitalized on the way neural networks work. If I were to ask you to name the first American automobile company that comes to mind, many of you will would say "Ford," even though you could just as easily have responded with one of the other Big Three. The reason is that I've just "primed" your neural networks with Harold Ford, putting anything associated with "Ford" at a heightened state of unconscious activation.
The Republican campaign against Harold Ford Jr. played these kinds of networks like a fiddle at Opryland. As Corker fell slightly behind Ford in the polls, he began describing himself as the "real Tennessean," using as a cover story that Ford was a city slicker from Washington. This was a curious charge to make, given that Corker had been attacking Ford and his family for being part of a Tennessee political machine (although once again Corker had plausible deniability because Ford had spent part of his childhood in Washington). The Republican National Committee then ran an ad the Corker campaign disavowed once it drew national attention, allowing him to claim distance while taking advantage of its effects. But Corker then followed it up with another ad of his own that makes clear that the ads were coordinated.
The ad that drew media interest began with a scantily clad white woman declaring excitedly, "I met Harold at the Playboy party!" She returns at the end of the ad, with a seductive wink, saying "Harold, call me." The obvious goal was to activate a network about black men having sex with white women, something about which many white men, including those who are not consciously prejudiced, still feel queasy.
The "call me" line came just after the ad had ostensibly ended with the following words on the screen: "Harold Ford. He's Just Not Right." When I first saw the ad, I thought the syntax was peculiar. What did they mean by "He's just not right?" That's a term often used to describe someone with a psychiatric problem, and no one was suggesting that Ford was deranged.
Then I realized what was wrong. If you were going to use that syntax, you'd say "He's just not right for Tennessee." What the viewer of the ad is not aware of (unless he or she is Tweetie Bird, or has trouble pronouncing r's), is that another network is being activated unconsciously. This second network was primed not only by the racial associations to the ad itself but by the broader campaign emphasizing that Ford isn't "one of us": "He's just not white."
Then came a Corker radio ad, whose cover story was again to compare and contrast Corker and Ford on the extent to which they're really Tennesseans. Music plays continuously in the background, but every time the narrator turns to talk about Ford, the listener is exposed to the barely audible sound of an African tom-tom. This is the closest ad we have seen to the RATS ad run by George W. Bush in 2000 against Al Gore, which subliminally presented the word RATS when talking about Gore. At the time, the Bush campaign quickly dismissed the idea that a "subliminable" appeal, as then¨CGovernor Bush called it, could have any effect.
However, my colleague Joel Weinberger and I were not so sure. We ran an experiment on the Internet in which we subliminally flashed the word RATS before a photo of an anonymous candidate, and sure enough, it significantly increased people's negative feelings toward him. It had seemed unlikely to me that the word RATS had accidentally found its way into an ad that cost millions of dollars to produce and air. The ads run against Ford suggest that Rove and crew are well aware of recent research on subliminal priming. It is di¡Þcult otherwise to explain the tom-toms, and I have not heard an alternative explanation for them.
Unfortunately, as with the "Willie Horton" ad run against Michael Dukakis in 1988, the Democrats lacked either the knowledge or the nerve to respond with the only known antidote to racial appeals made below the radar of consciousness: Make them conscious. A large body of research suggests that the vast majority of Americans today -- including the vast majority of rural Southerners -- do not believe that the color of a person's skin should have a bearing on the way they vote, and they consciously value fairness. If they knew someone was deliberately manipulating them with quasi-subliminal messages, they would be angry at the perpetrator, and it would backfire.
Harold Ford Jr. could not have been the messenger, as he well knew (evidenced by his muted response), because doing so would have activated another network that would have blown up in his face: "Black person crying racism." What he needed was a Southern white elder statesman to do it for him. Suppose, for example, Bill Clinton, who stumped for Ford in the final days of the campaign, had addressed himself directly to Corker in a speech:
Mr. Corker, what you have done injecting race into this campaign is a disgrace. The people of this state know what a skunk smells like, and they know when they've been sprayed. You knew exactly what you were doing when you ran that ad with the white woman saying with a wink, "Call me, Harold." The first time I saw that ad, a phrase came to my mind that I hadn't heard in 40 years: "All they want is our white women." And if it came to my mind, it came to a lot of people's minds. And that was just the point.
The Reverend Martin Luther King understood people's feelings about interracial dating and marriage 40 years ago. He knew that even decent people who harbored no ill will toward black people could be made uncomfortable if you got them to picture a black man with a white woman. He didn't want the rights of his children, and millions of others, to get caught up in people's feelings about what they called back then the "mixing" of the races, so he made his intentions clear: "I want the white man to be my brother," he said, "not my brother-in-law."
So when you realized you couldn't beat a strong, straight-talking, devoutly religious young black man named Harold Ford Jr. for Senate in the state of Tennessee in a fair fight, you decided to beat him however you could. So you started talking on the stump about how Harold Ford Jr., whose family has lived in this state for decades -- who was baptized in a church right here in Tennessee -- wasn't really from Tennessee, that he wasn't really one of us. Who'd you mean by us, Bob?
This time, it was you who were doing the winking.
And we all saw it. And how 'bout those tom-toms? That was a nice touch. You could pretend you had nothing to do with the "Call me, Harold" ad. You could say that somehow the Republican Party just put it out there without your knowledge, and when people started to call it racist, you could come out and piously demand that it be taken off the air.
But then how do you explain those radio ads with the subliminal African tom-toms? Did you really think you could get away with trying to influence people with subliminal racist messages, saying, "Don't vote for Harold Ford, he's of African descent?"
Let me tell you something about the good and decent people of Tennessee, Mr. Corker. They aren't racists like you. They're God-loving people who believe that regardless of the color of your skin, we're all God's children.
Just a few weeks ago, the people of Virginia sent George Allen a clear message that we don't tolerate people like the two of you anymore. After he called a fellow Virginian a name because of the color of his skin -- and told him he wasn't a real Virginian -- sound familiar, Bob? -- he dropped 10 points in the polls. Why? Because the people of Virginia are decent people, who read their Bible, and know that it preaches love, not hate. And I've been to this state enough times, and prayed with enough people here, to know that the people of Tennessee read that same book.
So you want to know what it means to be a real Tennessean? It means to understand the words of our Founding Fathers: that all men are created equal.
The difference between Harold Ford Jr. and you isn't in the darkness of your skin. It's in the darkness in of your heart.
Several principles are embodied in this response. First and foremost, it reflects two decades of research showing that on matters of race, our better angels are our conscious values. The vast majority of people, including rural Southerners, no longer consciously believe in discrimination. Where people tend to show their prejudice is in their unconscious networks, which will likely show the residues of racism for generations. If you let a racist attack linger unconsciously, it will have its intended effects. That's why you want to keep it conscious.
Indeed, Virginia Senator George Allen's campaign went into free-fall after Allen spoke the language of explicit racism. Voters (even those who don't speak Tunisian French) understood precisely what's in a man's heart who calls someone macaca because of the color of his skin -- especially when he follows it with, "Welcome to America, and the real world of Virginia." The difference between Allen and Corker was that Allen made the mistake of flying his prejudice at the wrong altitude.
A second principle embodied in the response above is that it does not equivocate. It does not invite Corker to engage in a he said/she said. It plainly states that he's a racist in a way that connects the dots so that the message is heard clearly.
Third, it redefines the "we." What Corker and the RNC were trying to do was to portray Ford as a member of an out group, to turn him into something other than "one of us." If you want to win elections, you need people to identify with you, not to see you as foreign or different from them. Brain-scanning data from our laboratory have shown that when people view pictures of their own party's candidates, circuits at the very front of the brain turn a switch on, the same circuits that typically become active when people are thinking about themselves. The response above would have turned the tables on Corker, to turn him into something other than "one of us," to define what good and decent people do and to make clear that he isn't one of them. It contrasts the decent people of Tennessee with racists like Corker, rather than allowing him to connect the implicit dots between "us" and "white people."
Finally, and just as importantly, it conveys a message that a Democrat can be a tough son-of-a-bitch; Democrats aren't going to be messed with. This is important both for the message it sends to the public -- that Democrats can be strong and aggressive when attacked, a crucial message in the post¨C9-11 era -- and the one it sends to the Republicans, that they can't get away with the race-baiting and code words they've been using since the 1960s, that they'll pay the price if they try it again.
It wasn't until late in the election that Democrats abandoned warmed-over milquetoast like "Together, we can do better," started connecting the dots they'd left unconnected since 2002, and began to show their teeth. Only then did they earn the respect of the American people.
Drew Westen is a professor at Emory University and author of the forthcoming The Political Brain.