Timing of political messages influences voter preferences, researcher finds

Aug 14, 2008

In political campaigns, timing is almost everything. Candidates communicate with voters over a long period of time before voters actually vote. What candidates say to these voters is, of course, important, but it turns out that when they say it also influences voter preferences.

Why Obama's reliance on lofty rhetoric has succeeded thus far is a puzzle addressed in the paper "It's Time to Vote: The Effect of Matching Message Orientation and Temporal Frame on Political Persuasion," forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research. The research, co-authored by the University of Minnesota's Akshay Rao, Hakkyun Kim (Concordia) and Angela Lee (Northwestern), demonstrates that the timing and content of political messages affects voters, particularly swing voters.

When U.S. Sen. Barack Obama began his presidential campaign, his rhetoric emphasized abstract concepts such as hope, change and judgment. In contrast, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton and other candidates frequently presented detailed, concrete plans on a host of topics ranging from the Iraq War to the economy and health care reform. Political commentators criticized Obama for his lack of specifics, yet voters continued to respond to his message.

Rao offers this illustration to characterize the research: "Imagine taking a vacation to Cancun six months from now. You are probably thinking about beaches, sunsets and other abstract information. On the other hand, if you were going to Cancun tomorrow, you would be thinking about taxi cabs and boarding passes -- concrete concerns -- making you more likely to process information about speedy check-in or the phone number of a taxi."

He continues, "Similarly, a voter facing a choice in the distant future is less interested in particular plans and policies and is more persuaded by broad, abstract ideas. It is only as the election gets closer that voters start paying attention to concrete details of the candidate's positions. In essence, when the choice is far away, a voter is more likely to think in abstract terms, but as the choice approaches, the voter puts more weight on the details."

The researchers demonstrate this temporal effect in a series of studies and observe that it is relatively uninformed voters who are most subject to this effect. "What this finding implies is that the people who typically decide elections -- voters in the middle -- are most susceptible to this type of persuasion. Political novices tend to be more persuaded by abstract messages when the choice is far off, and by concrete messages when the choice is imminent," said Rao. While the experiments focused on political contexts, the underlying argument applies equally well to other contexts, such as deciding which college to attend, which automobile to purchase or where to live when one retires.

The authors advise -- particularly in this time of long campaign cycles and multiple media channels -- that campaigns think strategically about the timing of messages targeted toward select markets, such as swing voters. Rao observes, "The fit of the right message with the right voter at the right time has never been more important to the outcome of a race."

Source: University of Minnesota

Explore further: Best of Last Week – Evidence of quark-gluon interactions, new portable device hack and why we may never live forever

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Working group explores the 'frustration' of spin glasses

Jul 18, 2014

Spin glasses are frustrating. Although the ideas have been around for decades and form the foundation of countless complex systems models, they have nonetheless resisted researchers' efforts to understand exactly how they ...

Australia abolishes divisive carbon tax

Jul 17, 2014

Australia on Thursday axed a divisive carbon tax after years of vexed political debate, in a move criticised as regressive and out of step with the rest of the world.

Hackers disrupt Tunisia voter registration

Jul 10, 2014

Hackers briefly disrupted the online voter registration process for Tunisia's parliamentary and presidential polls later this year, the electoral commission said on Thursday.

Recommended for you

Precarious work schedules common among younger workers

37 minutes ago

One wish many workers may have this Labor Day is for more control and predictability of their work schedules. A new report finds that unpredictability is widespread in many workers' schedules—one reason ...

How does your wine make you feel?

1 hour ago

University of Adelaide researchers are investigating the links between wine, where it's consumed and emotion to help the Australian wine industry gain deeper consumer insights into their products.

User comments : 0