The Psychology of an Election

Five people stand in polling stations, white legs exposed but torsos hidden behind curtains. How hard will it be to recreate this scene in November?

A while back, I wrote about the lack of marketing savvy in the Democratic Party and how we are out of our league in the upcoming election. We cannot combat the weaponry weilded by the current administration. Here, I want to consider our dilemma from another angle: the psychology of the electorate.

Several people in my social networks keep saying things like, “when he loses in November” or “when he’s out of office next year.” To them, seems obvious that someone who leads so recklessly, so ineptly, couldn’t have continued public support. To them, it’s unthinkable that the current president could possibly earn a second term. That same sentiment led to misplaced confidence in 2016, leading to arrogance, complacency, and eventual shock. 

In order to reduce our pain in the future, we need to accept something in the present: He’s going to win again in November. Start psychologically preparing for that trauma. 

Different Experiences

Everyone who in 2016 voted for the current president felt the validation of seeing what they marked on their ballot become reality. Every single one of them got validation that reinforced the idea their vote counted. They have also watched analogues of their anger, ignorance, and bigotry broadcast from the highest office in the land. This spectacle allows them to feel truly represented in government for the first time ever. To them, politics is finally working.

Now look at the other side. In 2016, the majority of people who voted voted for the opposing candidate and saw that candidate lose. Each of us experienced complete disconnections among our actions, the vote totals, the polling predictions, and the ultimate outcome. We saw that our actions didn’t matter and that cause and effect are no longer directly linked. We all felt disoriented and disempowered. The experience reinforced the sentiment that people’s votes don’t count, and we had numbers to prove it.

Psychological Consequences

People who rarely/occasionally vote and voted for Clinton received (in operant-conditioning terms) punishment. They learned that their vote had no effect, that their actions didn’t matter, and that despite the popular vote aligning with their intentions, the system saw fit to deny them their expected reward (negative punishment) and replace it with an unwanted element (positive punishment). By the way, operant conditioning calls that unwanted element a “noxious stimulant”, which may be my new nickname for the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Experiencing both negative and positive punishment from a single action becomes a psychological one-two punch. That punisment created a stronger resistance to voting that the left will have to work hard to overcome. Throw in suggestions that the sitting president might not accept a result not in his favor, and we have a lot of shrugging shoulders to contend with.

Our Challenge

The left always struggles to get out the vote. Four years ago, even though we thought the legitimacy of our democracy was on the line, we failed. All our efforts weren’t enough and, psychologically speaking, punished those we convinced to join our cause.

This time around, we need to get even more people to go to the polls. Our nation has become even more polarized in the past four years. Those who support the current administration fear losing power, and fear motivates the political right. Even the people who rarely/occasionally vote and voted for him received negative and positive reinforcement. They learned that voting matters and gets rewarded and can prevent a bad thing from happening. They have every reason to vote again.

Thanks to the continual barrage of psychological triggers over the past four years, the punishment received from the 2016 election, and the fears of COVID transmission at the polls, securing sufficient voter turnout will be harder than ever before.

The chance of a progressive victory in November is miniscule. The current administration will remain in place another four years, and we need to brace ourselves for the devastation.