Rationality and the Republican Autopsy

Political marketing is about giving voters what they want so one must have some notion of how voters think. With a colleague, June Cotte, I wanted to uncover how political marketers think voters think. The specific question we looked at was: “do political marketers think voters are rational?”

The big problem is that it is usually unclear what people mean by rationality. We identified seven ways people use the term rationality. Many are pretty loose, for example, some equate selfishness with rationality which is hard to justify by any theory that I’ve seen.

After considering what might be meant by rationality we looked at how political operatives saw voters. We turned to the “Republican Autopsy” published by the RNC (Republican National Committee) after they lost the 2012 presidential election. This is a surprisingly candid document. For example, it explains that: “focus groups said that the Party is scary, narrow minded and out of touch and that [the Republican Party was] a Party of stuffy old men” (Bendle and Cotte, 2016, page 78, quoting the report). This autopsy explains what Republican party grandees thought their party needed to do to appeal to voters. (I’m not sure they were successful — one of the main planks of their advice was to be nicer to Hispanic voters which does not appear to be a core tactic for many of the 2016 Republican candidates).

Using the autopsy as our source we backed out how the operatives think that voters think. Our conclusion was that the Republican operatives endorsed the idea that voters are not always selfish. Nor do they think that voters are unemotional. They accept that voters have some, but limited, political knowledge. That voters make some, but not complete, errors in their voting, and are capable of some, but not complete, consistency in their decision making. Ironically the Republican operative did not see political markets as “perfect markets” but do see the value of tailoring messages to the voters’ ways of thinking.  Having fun we said: “the Republicans have an instinctual understanding of the need to appeal to the evolved features of the voters’ minds.” (Bendle and Cotte, 2016 page 78).

The core point is that the operatives have a fairly undogmatic view of human decision making and whether voters make effective decisions. Many academics could learn from them.

Read: Neil Bendle and June Cotte (2016)  Assumptions of Rationality in Political Marketing: The Case of the Republican Autopsy, Journal of Nonprofit and Public Sector Marketing, 28(1) 66-83, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10495142.2016.1131481