Does race lack substance?

Published: Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 12:36 a.m.

Jon Morris said his polling work gives credence to the view that the U.S. presidential race lacks substance.

The University of Florida advertising professor is the founder of SenseUS, which conducts polling to measure the emotional response of voters to candidates and issues.

The polling shows voters are likely responding to the current batch of presidential candidates based on factors such as their backgrounds or personalities, he said, instead of the candidates' positions on any particular issue.

"They're reacting to something like I like your face' rather than Your policies are good for the country,' '' he said.

The early presidential primaries, especially the Democratic races, seem to support his theory.

Hillary Clinton's emotional response to a question at a New Hampshire coffee shop was in part credited with her victory in the state, while Barack Obama's inspiration of young voters was connected to his victory in Iowa.

It's typical that primary voters would base decisions on factors such as candidates' likability, said UF associate professor of political science Michael Martinez.

The candidates in the Democratic race in particular have similar positions on major issues, he said, so voters instead base decisions on issues such as electability and leadership qualities.

"There's not that much of a difference on some of the key issues," he said.

Morris said his polling shows that voters have concerns about issues such as the economy and war in Iraq, but formed their views of the candidates for other reasons. The polling technique is based on the premise that emotions are a key part of decision-making.

"Before people act on something, they have to feel it," he said.

The technique gauges three areas of emotional response: pleasure, engagement and feelings of control. The poll is conducted using an online system in which participants report emotional impact using illustrated images.

A study of reactions to Barack Obama, for example, found respondents were either interested/excited or ambivalent about him. The interested respondents cited factors such as Obama being charismatic or offering a fresh approach.

"They see him as something new and refreshing as opposed to being into his policy on health care," he said.

Morris said those type of responses are similar to the reactions to other candidates. Voters rarely cited issues in their support of candidates, he said.

"If they're talking about the issues, then it's not hitting home," he said.

His polling shows the issue that evoked the strongest emotions from voters was the Iraq war. About half of all respondents were enthusiastic about troop withdrawals, expressing negative feelings about progress being made in Iraq and positive feelings about the prospect of troops returning home.

The polling found Democrats and independent voters generally aligned on Iraq and most issues other than immigration. Nearly half of independents and a slightly larger number of Republicans reported feeling disgusted and unaccepting about the current levels of immigration, while most Democrats were ambivalent about the issue.

Morris said such polling doesn't necessarily mean candidates should avoid issues that cause a negative emotional response. Candidates could use the work to frame their approach to issues, he said, focusing on aspects of issues that inspire positive emotional responses.

"You can base those kind things on emotional reaction ... but still stick with substance," he said.

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@gville

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