The U.S. presidential election may still be 41 days and the vagaries of an unpredictable market away, but in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall on Monday afternoon, political psychologist Drew Westen minced no words in predicting victory for Sen. Barack Obama, who he said possesses an ability to appeal to voters’ emotions that is unusual among Democrats.
“If you want to win people’s hearts and minds, you have to start with their hearts,” said Westen, the author of “The Political Brain,” published last year.
While the Republican Party has historically played on the heartstrings of voters, he said, Democrats have focused on policies alone. While Democrats often refer to bills by their acronyms or numbers, for example, Republicans use accessible names like “No Child Left Behind,” Westen said.
Often writing off emotional appeals as unethical, “Democrats are wedded to the idea that the campaign is a debate on the issues,” said Westen, who delivered his remarks to an audience of about 100.
But Obama is different, according to Westen.
“We finally have a candidate who can actually put words together in evocative ways and inspire people,” he said.
And that ability, he said, may make all the difference in November.
In a 2006 study, Westen and his colleagues found that when a partisan brain is confronted with threatening or contradictory information about its candidate, the parts of the brain associated with negative emotions, emotional regulation and conflict are activated. The reasoning circuits, however, are surprisingly not activated, he said.
“The partisan brain is an emotional brain,” Westen said.
In the 2008 Democratic primary, Obama “captured the imagination of the voter,” Westen said. “Democrats voted for a candidate that inspired them and that would perhaps inspire the electorate.”
The lecture culminated with the topic on everyone’s mind: which candidate will win in November.
All objective indicators point to an Obama victory, Westen said: President George W. Bush’s ’68 unpopularity hurts Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, while Obama’s oratory is superior to his opponent’s.
“But never count on the Democrats not to snatch a defeat out of the jaws of victory,” he joked.
Westen made no pretense of his ideological loyalties — he is currently employed as a consultant for the Democratic Party, working to create emotionally compelling “stories” for state parties, major progressive organizations and Democratic Senate leadership, he said.
Westen said part of the Republican Party’s recent political success is due to its ability to trigger thoughts in voters’ minds through the use of words used in speeches and ads.
“Half of [the Right’s] budget goes to thinking great thoughts,” he said. “The other half goes to selling those thoughts.”
Employing this strategy, Republicans have successfully made the term “liberal” synonymous with ideas such as elitism, increased taxation, special interests and big government, he said. The word is now also associated with “sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, latte-drinking, godless atheists,” Westen said.
Republicans, on the other hand, he said, have ensured that their political brand brings to mind notions of tearing down the Berlin Wall, protecting the flag and supporting the troops.
Audience members interviewed generally responded positively to the 90-minute address.
“I liked that he used real speeches,” Joe Charlet ’10 said. “That grounded it in reality.”
But Heather Stoller ’09 said she was skeptical of Westen’s remarks.
“It was a little fluffy,” she said. “I’m still not convinced that marketing [in campaigns] is necessarily good.”
Added Max Ehrenfreund ’12: “[Westen] had some interesting things to say, but I was a little frustrated because at the beginning he said he was going to talk from a non-partisan point of view. … But then he ended up speaking more about what the Democrats can do to improve their strategies. It was less scientific than I was expecting.”
Although Westen said he was confident that all signs point to victory for Obama, he still thinks the Democrats could become more media-savvy.
Challenging the audience to think of a memorable Democratic slogan, he was met with silence until one Obama supporter yelled out “Change you can believe in!”
“Well,” Westen said, “Let’s see if we remember that in two years.”