Reference Dependence In Primary Elections

Reference Dependence involves comparing outcomes to what we are focused on rather than an absolute scale. Thus higher pay after a cut may make us less happy than lower pay after a raise. Comparision to the reference, here past earnings, helps explain behavior.

In a primary election what happens if voters fixate on a reference? I used a Hotelling line model; a left/right line upon which all voters and candidates have an ideological position. I asked, for example, if a voter in the Republican primary were thinking about the extreme left how would this impact the voter’s choice compared to if the voter were thinking about his or her own, right of centre, views.

If political marketers could influence the reference what reference would they want voters to adopt? I concluded that a more extreme candidate wants voters in their primary to be using a comparison within their own party. Ironically moderate candidates want to focus primary voters on how extreme the other party is. (Perhaps this contributes to the perceived polarization of US politics).

I used the model to consider a real-world situation. (Analytical models simplify so can’t be definitive but can help give us an idea of what might have happened). I considered the 2004 Democratic primary, famous for Howard Dean’s scream. Conventional wisdom suggests Dean’s scream cost him the nomination. This seems incorrect, Dean screamed after he had a disaster in Iowa — he may already have lost before he screamed.

I suggest that Dean’s communications strategy may have contributed to his loss. He helped focus the Democratic primary voters on George W. Bush. The problem for Dean is that compared to Bush, Howard Dean and his rival, John Kerry, seemed much the same. Why, therefore, not vote for Kerry who was perceived as having a better chance of beating Bush. My model suggests Dean would have done better focusing more on what he personally could offer and less on how George Bush needed to be beaten.

For what its worth my advice to candidate’s like 2004 John Kerry is the opposite. “The advice to a more electable, that is moderate, candidate is to encourage voters to compare the primary candidates to the extremes of the other party”, (Bendle, 2014, page 307).

Read: Neil Bendle (2014) Reference Dependence in Political Primaries, Journal of Political Marketing, 13, 4, pages 307-333.