Do Voters Make Rational Decisions at Election Time?

Nobel Economist Richard Thaler might have an idea for candidates

You wanted to say ‘no’ when you read that, didn’t you? You’ve seen too many election results to believe voters act in a rational way. But what if those being irrational aren’t the voters but the pundits and politicians foolishly criticize the voters for their choices?

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Last week Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize in Economics.  The Wall Street Journal reported:

American Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize in economics Monday for upending the longstanding notion that individuals make rational decisions about their futures and finances and helping to develop policies intended to nudge people toward altering their choices.

When I read this I thought to myself that Thaler’s work could also be applied to voters and elections.

And to a very good degree they can.

No, I’m not saying voters make irrational decisions at election time.

Voters know exactly why they are voting for or against a candidate. 

Their reasoning is rational to them, even if at times it appears irrational to you or me.

Voters like all human beings make their decisions based on appeals to their logos, ethos, and pathos.

If it’s been a while since you studied philosophy or you’ve never seen Richard Nixon’s “Checkers Speech” from 1952, here’s a quick refresher on the three.

Logos is an appeal to ones logic. Ethos is an appeal to ones ethics. Pathos is an appeal to ones emotional.

When a person makes a decision based out of an appeal to logos, they believe they are making a logical one.

They see their choice as acting in a wise and logical way.

When a person makes a decision based on  an appeal to ethos, they are doing so based on their ethical system.

The choice based upon whether it is right or wrong by their moral compass.

And when a voter casts a ballot because of an appeal to pathos, it’s based on how they feel.

Specifically, their decision is made by how they feel about the candidates in a race, both positively and negatively.

Now here’s the big secret about the motivations of the majority of voters.

Almost all voters cast their ballots because of their emotions.

Yes, there are a handful of voters who make solid logical and ethical cases for their political choices.

But that’s not how most voters make up their minds.

Even if voters can support their decision by showing the ethics or the logic of it, they were still guided by their guts.

To some degree that may sound irrational. It’s not.

I vote with my gut as often as with my brain. Don’t you?

What I believe is irrational is not understanding human behavior and what motivates voters decisions.

The rational thing for a candidate to do is learn this fact, accept it, and appeal to the voters on a real emotional level.

How do you go about doing that?

In your messaging of course.

A winning campaign message is all about connecting with the voters.

Candidates who connect are usually the candidates who win.

A key element of a winning campaign message is understanding what concerns the voters.

Their concerns can run the gambit from simple worries, deep fears, to downright anger over a situation.

If you can understand what scares a voter, keeps them up at night, or pisses them off to no end then you’re in a good spot.

Once you can articulate the issue or issues that strongly concern the voters, you’re in a place where you can relate with them.

Simply showing that you know what the problems are that the voters want fixed demonstrates you understand them on a deeper level.

Bill Clinton was a master of this. He practically got elected because of this, saying repeatedly in 1992, “I feel your pain.”

When you can do this and provide a good plan to solve the issues vexting the minds of the voters, you’ll be in a good spot to win your election.

And it won’t be because the voters are irrational.

It’ll be because you took the time to find out what really mattered to them and put forth a rational plan to make things better.

And as Richard Thaler might say, you’ve developed a way to nudge people towards choosing your name at the ballot box.