Brown Out (With a bit o’ Science Bleg)
With all the myriad commentary flying around about about the meaning of Scott Brown’s victory, it would help to remember that people who follow politics write about politics. This creates a bias whereby the majority of people voting are perceived as voting based on political reasons (as defined and understood by the commentariat).
The reality is otherwise. People vote emotionally. Specifically, they vote with their limbic system. The famed “most people” don’t have time to wonkishly pour over political details, therefore they intuit (correctly, I would argue) that their rational neocortex brain is not really the best indicator of what they should do. Hence they rely on their limbic brain (a product of our mammalian ancestry).
Drew Westen, one of the leading proponents of neuro-politics, has shown (persuasively, in my opinion) that elections basically boil down to 5 topics, in decreasing order of significance from the top down.
1. Party image (narrative), a sense of identity to the cause
2. Personal Qualities of Leader of Party (ability to connect to people emotionally)
3. “Gut” Qualities of Leader (can they trust you, cool under pressure, appear disciplined, etc.)
4. Policy Proposals
5. Facts about Policy Proposals
So with Coakley-Brown, let’s go through that list.
1. The party image of the Dems is down. Health care is part of that, but more importantly, I believe, is a lack of narrative (including but not limited to an oppositional narrative to create distinction).
2. Coakley was a horrible candidate. Particularly horrible insofar as she was aloof, emotionally tepid (if not outright cold), and appeared to be a robotic, party-machine hack. In contrast, Scott Brown is more media-friendly, outgoing, and “likable”.
3. A push here, I would say. The only real hurdle was for Brown, as the insurgent candidate, to prove he was reliable. Or at least not unreliable by massively screwing up his campaign. (Which he didn’t do.)
4/5 have to do with special Massachusetts circumstances and the health care debate, but in the end #1-3 are what make the biggest difference.
To wit, (h/t Andrew Sullivan), here is Nate Silver on last night’s election:
The final score: national environment 13, Coakley 14, special circumstances 4.
If you follow through on the math, this would suggest that Coakley would have won by about 8 points, rather than losing by 5, had the national environment not deteriorated so significantly for Democrats. It suggests that the Democrats would have won by 9 points, rather than losing by 5, had the candidate been someone other than Coakley. And it suggests that the race would have been a 1-point loss (that is, basically too close to call), rather than a 5-point loss, even if Coakley had run such a bad campaign and even if the national environment had deteriorated as much as it has, but had there not been the unusual circumstances associated with this particular election.
In other words, national environment (bad for Dems)=#1, Coakley (emotionally disconnected, un-energetic candidate)=#2, Special Local Circumstances=#4 + 5
Numbers four and five, the things Democrats hem and haw about so much works out to about a 4% difference. So when White House Dems blame Coakley they are right. When Coakley Dems blame the national environment (and the White House by extension) they are also (in part) right.
But generally Dems (particularly progressives) spend all their time arguing over the 4% that really isn’t the difference maker.
Afterthought: Humans have three basic brain systems: neocortex (rational thought), limbic (the emotional, nurturing brain), and reptilian (fight/flight mechanism). If a candidate/party wants to smear another candidate they usually attack using the trust factor (#3) by lighting up the reptilian brain. Republicans of course have become adept at this over the years with their constant “scare tactics” (Though a Democrat like Hillary Clinton used the same technique in her run). Democrats have typically responded to such “fear-mongering” (i.e. reptilian-brain excitation) with “rational” responses which don’t work because they are not responding on the level at which the issue was first raised and often fail to use the limbic system to connect to voters emotionally.