Editor’s Note: Drew Westen is a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University and founder of Westen Strategies, a strategic political messaging firm. He is the author of “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.” Follow him on Twitter at ThePoliticalBrain. The opinions in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
How do you weigh a carton of eggs against a carton of freedoms? Both are on the ballot this November, and how Americans vote will be as much a function of psychology as politics.
That’s because our conscious mind is a limited tool for decision-making, in large part because it has limited “space.” Try remembering nine items you need at the store: Voters can’t possibly keep in mind every issue they care about as they cast their ballots for multiple candidates and propositions.
And how do you weigh what you feel every time you reach for a gallon of milk against what you feel about the Supreme Court’s controversial decision to overturn Roe v. Wade after a half-century, or how safe you feel sending your kids back to school this month?
As in most decision-making, much of what drives us is unconscious and emotional. Voters form associations between what they feel and what is happening around them. They “calculate” the costs and benefits of what matters to them – their interests and values – largely outside of their awareness, often in the form of “gut feelings” toward a candidate or party.
Consciously, voters “know” that most of the causes of inflation, including supply chain disruptions and the war in Ukraine, are outside President Joe Biden’s control. And polls have shown overwhelming support for his bipartisan infrastructure bill, and the American Rescue Act that prevented the deep, multi-year recession that has followed every other severe economic downturn since the Great Depression.
The same is true of the provisions of the landmark Inflation Reduction Act, which Biden is expected to sign into law in the coming days. It cuts the cost of prescription drugs and helps make health care more affordable for millions of Americans.
It also requires big corporations to stop freeloading off taxpaying Americans. And it ramps up investments in clean energy and climate change, at a time when Americans are really feeling it, as they watch their homes and treasured forests burn out West and their loved ones and homes disappear in floods in the South and Midwest. Many historians will likely view Biden’s first two years as the most effective legislative years of any president in a half-century.
Yet somehow, the sum of policies with approval numbers in the 60s or 70s, yields presidential ratings in the 30s. Why? Because voters aren’t consciously weighing the costs and benefits of Biden. They are associating him with the skyrocketing cost of living.
Successful political campaigns are all about associations and emotions. This year, Republicans have the easier task: Every time voters go to the grocery store, they feel the sting of inflation. It’s like an unpaid ad against their opponents. So expect ads showing every Democratic candidate beside a cardboard cutout of Biden. Democrats are already waffling when asked whether they will support Biden in 2024. Perhaps July’s downtick in inflation and the drop in gas prices will register before the midterm elections, or perhaps not. Associations change much more slowly than conscious beliefs.
One thing is certain, though: Democrats can’t hide from economics in November, and they can’t hide their association with the President. Nor should they. But if they offer voters a laundry list of accomplishments rather than an emotionally compelling story about where the two parties plan to take the country, Republicans will take them to the cleaners in the House of Representatives, where the Democratic majority is razor thin, and in statewide races.
Democrats can use their accomplishments to blunt voters’ economic anxiety and begin to restore hope – two of the most important emotions that drive voting. Aside from its popular provisions, the Inflation Reduction Act – if Democrats can restrain themselves from calling it “the reconciliation bill,” or a resorting to a “catchy” acronym like “IRA22” – is an emotionally evocative name that connects the dots to voters’ primary source of anxiety.
It also allows Democrats to put their opponents on the defensive by simply asking, “So why are you against reducing inflation? Most of the people we represent are pretty concerned about it.”
The referendum on abortion rights in Kansas also changed the emotional equation, as voters in the heart of red America unequivocally told politicians to get out of their personal lives. Their rebuke of the central Republican agenda and fund-raising issue of the last 30-odd years presents not just a short-term but a long-term problem for the GOP.
But a referendum on one issue is not the same as a choice between candidates, and Democrats need voters to retain the emotional intensity they feel now, several weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Roe.
Democrats also need voters to worry about GOP leaders who repeatedly pledge allegiance to Donald Trump and Republican nominees for statewide offices all over the country who have just won their primaries by denying that Biden was elected President in 2020 and insisting they will not certify any election results in 2024 that don’t pick their chosen candidate.
And following the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago and the storm of violent threats it has already elicited all over the internet, polarized feelings about Trump will undoubtedly enter voters’ unconscious calculus as well.
How voters will combine all of these feelings at the ballot box is anyone’s guess, and the polls may be an imperfect guide. Voters can’t consciously report what they are unconsciously thinking and feeling. But if Democrats want to break the historical curse of first-term presidents in the midterms and the equally powerful curse of inflation, they will need to go for the gut.