While there are many factors that can determine a voter’s support for a presidential candidate – including religion, gender, social identity, party loyalty and interest in government/public policy – how a voter processes information influences his or her voting decision. As we approach the 2016 Presidential Election, voters are sifting through information such as media coverage of the candidates, political advertising, and conversations with friends, family, and other voters.
All of us have a “cognitive budget” that draws a limit on our mental capacity to receive, process, and/or comprehend information. Aside from the need to manage the information that we receive to avoid information overload, this cognitive budget may also direct us to apply our built-in cognitive schema, which functions like a map to psychologically screen the information that we receive to help guide the formation of our thoughts, feelings, and/or actions.
We develop this cognitive schema over time through socialization about the world around us, which helps us manage our cognitive budget in terms of how much mental effort to invest in response to an external stimulus such as a campaign message. This schema could also help us maintain our psychological equilibrium to help lessen or resolve our cognitive dissonance – the discrepancies between our thoughts, feelings, and/or actions.
When we’re guided by this schema, we could develop a set of evaluation criteria for making social judgment on people, ideologies, and events. These evaluation criteria could help us establish a latitude of acceptance, rejection, or non-commitment. While the “non-commitment” zone could be penetrated and converted into an “acceptance” zone or a “rejection” zone through persuasion, it is generally difficult to reverse the “acceptance” or “rejection” zone by comparison.
An individual’s cognitive budget, combined with established schema and social judgment, could help determine whether this individual is a “low” or “high” involvement voter. Low-involvement voters tend to process more superficial peripheral cues such as emotional appeals, slogans, personality, and image of a political candidate without investing the mental effort necessary to better understand the arguments or policies presented by the candidate. High-involvement voters tend to process more substantive content cues, such as a candidate’s knowledge, qualifications, experience, and rational appeals by investing the necessary mental effort to understand the arguments or policies of a candidate.
In the case of this year’s presidential campaign, how potential voters process a candidate’s message could be generalized as follows: The majority of voters adopted a heuristic approach to decipher a candidate’s message. Potential voters attracted to Republican candidate Donald J. Trump’s far right “strong man” style have developed a cognitive script and a “latitude of acceptance” that serve as the basis for exercising their cognitive budget, which allows them to take a mental shortcut by filtering the criticisms against Trump over time. The same is true with potential voters who prefer Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s center-left “policy-wonk” style by implementing their cognitive budget to dismiss the challenges of her critics primarily as noise whenever they surface.
In looking back at the primary elections and the campaigns of the two resulting candidates, it is clear that an inoculation strategy at the beginning of the long election campaign cycle would help provide a basis for fending off future attacks from political opponents as well as tempering potential media scrutiny. It could also help shape the narrative about what the potential questions about a candidate’s character, knowledge, experience, and/or record should be, as well as how the basis for these questions could be discredited or challenged, in addition to what lessons a candidate has learned and how he or she has advanced the dialogue to propose a better policy.
For Trump, this inoculation strategy seems to have occurred organically, as he uttered provocative rhetoric from the outset to draw attention to himself. The media and Trump’s critics have been unintentionally “disarmed” and relatively ineffective in their attempts to vet his truthfulness or challenge his message, even when there is evidence of unethical or potentially illegal conduct that could have immediately disqualified him as a candidate. The media and Trump’s critics thus have resorted to discussing his unconventional narrative on a daily basis, which then help reiterate and reinforce Trump’s message for the consuming public. Over time, the media and the public have grown accustomed to Trump’s style and have opted for not applying the conventional standard to judge Trump’s candidacy.
In the case of Clinton, there was no inoculation strategy. Instead, we see numerous allegations of misconduct that surface throughout the campaign, as media have been extremely aggressive in vetting her by reporting even potentially false ethical violations to keep the public engaged. These allegations are topics of discussion in the media and among Clinton critics on a daily basis, which have created a cumulative effect of public distrust in her character, truthfulness, and transparency. As a result, her campaign has been playing defense ever since. When it tries to play offense, it targets Trump’s character. This strategy might have reinforced the beliefs and attitudes of Clinton supporters about Trump, it does not influence Trump supporters and is mostly ineffective in persuading the uncommitted voters to support Clinton. In essence, the media and the public have applied a conventional standard to judge her candidacy.
For those high-involvement voters who practice a systematic information processing approach to evaluate a candidate’s message, they also have their own cognitive budget. This cognitive budget is much larger than that of their low-involvement counterparts. In general, high-involvement voters are able to describe the message and policies of their favorite candidate in an informative manner, albeit most don’t have a deep understanding of whether these policies could be supported by Congress, how these policies could be implemented, and what consequences these policies may bring.
It is logical to assume that a voter’s information processing style has a strong influence on how he or she makes their decision to endorse or not endorse a presidential candidate. With the unique characteristics of the 2016 Presidential candidates – a non-politician and a woman – this election offers an unprecedented case study opportunity for examining how the election outcome may be determined by voters’ information processing style, which shape either a more rational or a more emotional decision-making process.
Carolyn Lin is a professor of communication science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Connecticut. Her research and teaching focus on the content, uses, and effects of digital, risk, crisis, marketing, media, and cross-cultural communication on individuals, communities, and society.