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?” What can we say about rationality and the Republican autopsy?
Lack Of Clarity On The Meaning Of Rationality
The big problem is that it is usually unclear what people mean by rationality. We identified seven ways people use the term rationality. Many of the uses are pretty loose. For example, some equate selfishness with rationality. This is hard to justify by any theory that I’ve seen. See also here.
After considering what might be meant by rationality we looked at how political operatives saw voters. We turned to the “Republican Autopsy”. This was a report 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 did not appear to be a core tactic for many of the 2016 Republican candidates).
Views of Rationality And The Republican Autopsy
Using the autopsy as our source we backed out how the operatives think that the 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. They see voters as capable of some, but not complete, consistency in their decision making.
Ironically the Republican operatives 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). I thought it was funny anyhow. (That it makes me laugh is a surprisingly high priority in my choice of language in my research).
The core point is that the operatives have a fairly undogmatic view of human decision-making. The operatives are not wed to any firm ideas of whether voters make effective decisions. Many academics could learn from them.
For more on rationality see here.
For a discussion of the autopsy see here.
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