The psychology behind voting for Donald Trump or Joe Biden

30 Oct, 2020

Ahead of the US election on Tuesday, Dr Kevin Cunningham, a lecturer in Politics and Chair of the MA in Journalism course at TU Dublin, says there are several psychological explanations behind why we decide who to vote for a candidate or party.

Do you ever wonder why someone would vote for Donald Trump? Or indeed for any politician? On the face of it, an election looks like a fairly straightforward process. Politicians make proposals about how they plan to run the country and, in response, voters pick their preferred politician (or indeed political party). However, political science tells us that this is not the case and that psychology plays a far more significant role in voting behaviour. Just why and how is this the case?

Voters cannot rely on understanding all the policies of all the parties and therefore rely on cues. To explain, it is an enormously difficult task to evaluate a series of detailed manifestos against the entire gamut of public policy. This is further complicated by the implausibility of the manifestos themselves, which must be written without knowledge of how the economy will change or how the priorities of the general public will change in the future.

Compounding things further is the fact that voters recognise the minimal direct utility of their single vote while also recognising the moral duty of voting. As such, it is unsurprising that voters look to shortcuts to simplify the important decision of who should run the country.

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One such shortcut is the notion of 'left' and ‘right’ in politics. We can observe how people across the world tend to gravitate towards certain combinations of policy positions. Those that tend to believe in greater levels of distribution of wealth also tend to believe in greater freedoms in relation to same-sex marriage and abortion as well as favouring more action in relation to climate change to name just three of these policy areas. This combination may simply be regarded as left-wing.

Conversely, those on the right tend to favour the opposite in maintaining the status quo with respect to the same policies. While there are slight variations of this such as liberal-conservative or authoritarian-libertarian wings depending on the context, the key question is why these otherwise unrelated policy positions tend to cluster together.

This is where psychology comes in. One psychological explanation of the patterns is personality. Since the 1980s, studies have shown how the "Big 5 Personality Traits" (ascertained through a series of survey questions) correspond with a range of behaviours including alcohol consumption, exercise, longevity, mental health, satisfaction in intimate relationships, and parenting style.

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In terms of elections, two traits correspond with voting behaviour: those with high scores for the ‘openness’ trait tend towards the left. These are people who are curious rather than cautious. Meanwhile, and to a lesser extent, those with high scores for the ‘conscientiousness’ trait tend towards the right. These people are more likely to be organised rather than careless.

More recently, a third trait, ‘neuroticism’, people who are more anxious than confident, has been shown to influence support for populist movements, including Trump and Brexit. It is from this analysis that campaigns such as 'Make America Great Again' and 'Take Back Control' originate, tapping into the anxieties held by these people by offering impossible certainties. While certainly interesting, one should not overstate the role this played in those elections. Owing to the fact that this is a simple subjective assessment of one’s own personality, it lacks precision. Furthermore, even if one were to predict personality relatively accurately, there are too few with a high ‘neuroticism’ score for targeting via personality traits to have made the critical difference.

Indeed, the ‘Big 5’ is typically no more powerful than education or income at predicting attitudes. This renders it rather redundant as personalities and voter psychology are more generally regarded as a ‘middle-ground’ between demographics and attitudes. They are shaped by environmental factors such as age and education and shape one’s responses to current policy questions.

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A better predictor of psychological explanation is based on morality. Differences between people can be reduced to the extent to which they adhere to each of the five moral foundations. In most if not all countries, voters on the left tend to score higher on the first two items - care for others and the application of fairness - that pertain to individual-level morality. Meanwhile, those on the right tend to score higher on the latter three - loyalty to one’s group, submission to authority, and abhorrence to impure behaviours - pertaining to a group-level morality. The key difference is the extent to which the voter considers the group morality.

We know that the vast majority of voters will have long made up their mind on which candidate they prefer. This type of partisanship that reinforces itself is known as party identification where voters feel a closeness between themselves and their party often lasting decades. As such, studies on elections frequently reveal that campaigns have only a limited effect, much of which is predicated on the state of the economy.

However, in the final days, it is worth looking out for attempts to invoke voters’ fears, anger and enthusiasm, emotions known to trigger a small increase in the likelihood to vote for their party. At the end of the day, any marginal highly partisan contest will be decided by which of the two tribes wants it more.

Dr Kevin Cunningham is a lecturer in Politics and Chair of the MA in Journalism course at TU Dublin. He is a former Targeting & Analysis Manager for the British Labour Party.

This article was original published on RTE Brainstorm.