Note: This article contains spoilers for Lay Down Your Burdens, season 2 episodes 19 and 20 of Battlestar Galactica.
Living in New York, I’ve been sheltered from the 2012 presidential ads. Since the state is all but guaranteed to vote for Barack Obama, neither candidate has spent much money on advertising here. However, when I was in Virginia this past weekend, I was inundated with political ads. These ads reminded me of another pivotal election in which a once popular incumbent (who also inherited a horrible situation) declined in polls after a failed debate against a candidate no one expected to win – the presidential race between Battlestar Galactica’s President Laura Roslin and Vice President Gaius Baltar.
Vice President Baltar was an “empty suit” of a politician, light on experience, socially awkward, and perceived to be a man of privilege. His campaign was unable to gain traction against the incumbent, President Roslin. However, Roslin was not universally popular. Many questioned whether this “schoolteacher” should have been sworn in as president at all (as the Secretary of Education, she was 43rd in line of succession after the destruction of her homeworld during the Cylon genocide). Primarily due to Roslin’s alliance with the military, polls expected her to be re-elected to a 2nd term.
All of that changed when the fleet stumbled upon a planet hidden in a nebula that was capable of supporting life – New Caprica. Roslin rejected the idea of permanent settlement due to the brutal landscape of the new planet. Baltar’s aid, Tom Zarek saw this planet as an opportunity:
“It may look dreary. It may be dreary, but it's solid ground under your feet, and a real sky over your head. You'd be surprised what a powerful idea that is to people cooped up in metal boxes for nine months."
Baltar agreed and centered his campaign on the prospect of settlement. Roslin defended her platform, criticized Baltar for promoting a plan that could put the fleet in danger, and reiterated the need to move forward despite any hardships they will encounter.
Baltar went on to win the election because of his projected optimism and Roslin’s cold realism. During the final presidential debate, he gave the fleet hope that they could finally stop the onslaught of Cylon attacks.
"The President uses fear to drive her campaign…fear of the gods, fear of the Cylons, fear of fear itself. Isn't it time to stop being afraid? I am asking all of us to stop running from our lives and start living them."
As was best summarized by Tory Foster, Roslin's chief of staff, “People vote their hopes, not their fears, they don't want to hear the truth.”
What I love about the election of Baltar is that it highlights much of what we know about the psychology of voting. People vote for many reasons, but political preferences are influenced by a complex interaction of genetics, environment, and psychology. In a recent paper, Peter Hatemi and Rose McDermott reviewed the role of each variable in determining political views. What Hatemi and McDermott found was up until individuals move out of their parents’ homes, both identical twins (who share almost the exact genetic structure) and fraternal twins (who share about half of their genetics) have the same political opinions. After leaving one's home, fraternal twins can develop different political views while identical twins retain the same views. In other words, genetics, family, and culture play a major role in influencing political opinion growing up, but change can occur if and when one leaves their home.
By itself, this is not surprising – family influences your politics due to your genes and the values you grow up with (the same is true of temperament and we’ve known that for a long time). What is surprising is the strong role basic emotions play in year-to-year elections, specifically anger and hope.
A group of University of Michigan political scientists, led by Nicholas Valentino, created an experiment in which participants wrote about an experience that made them angry, anxious, or enthusiastic. Later, participants were asked about their participation in politics. Those who were in the angry situation had statistically higher intentions to participate politically compared to the anxiety and enthusiasm groups. The authors found similar results when analyzing national electorate data from 1980 – 2004. Bottom line – to make voters more engaged and mobilized in your cause, get them pissed off at your opponent. Unfortunately, Valentino and his colleagues identified a side effect of anger – it leads individuals to become closed-minded (something 60 Minutes recently detailed in their analysis of the U.S. Senate).
Along with anger, “people vote their hopes”. The triumph of optimism in U.S. presidential elections was first identified in a series of studies led by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Harold Zullow. Researchers analyzed the acceptance speeches of all major candidates at their political conventions throughout the 20th century for optimism, pessimism, and focus on negative events. Their analysis used a technique called CAVE (Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations), which is based on the finding that depressed individuals discuss events differently than non-depressed individuals (e.g. “I’m alone because I don't deserve to be loved” versus “I’m alone because I haven’t met the right person yet”). Results indicated that between 1900 through 1984, the more optimistic candidate who focused less on negative events won 80% of the elections (the exceptions were FDR in his three reelection races and Nixon). Candidates who inspire hope have a significant advantage with the electorate (exemplified by Clinton’s “A bridge to the 21st century”). Why is optimism so important? Optimistic individuals continue to work hard, even in the face of defeat, and optimistic messages may resonate better than neutral or pessimistic messages.
In the Battlestar Galactica election, Roslin failed to understand the importance of emotions in elections. She relied upon her perceived experience, authority, and judgment to win re-election. Baltar capitalized on the underlying anger of the fleet, funneling it towards the incumbent, while also inspiring the electorate with hope for a better future.
Today’s election between President Barack Obama and Govenor Mitt Romney puts us in a different situation. President Obama’s 2008 landslide victory was the result of a campaign that effectively integrated messages of “hope and change”. But many believe Obama has failed to deliver on his promises. As New York City Mayor recently stated in his endorsement of Obama:
“In 2008, Obama ran as a pragmatic problem-solver and consensus-builder. But as president, he devoted little time and effort to developing and sustaining a coalition of centrists, which doomed hope for any real progress on illegal guns, immigration, tax reform, job creation and deficit reduction. And rather than uniting the country around a message of shared sacrifice, he engaged in partisan attacks and has embraced a divisive populist agenda focused more on redistributing income than creating it.”
While, Governor Romney has effectively used the depressed economy to instill anger at Obama, many find him to be uninspiring and untrustworthy due to his political pivots from moderate Governor to a conservative presidential nominee.
It is not surprising that this election is too close to call. There’s plenty of anger to go around and neither candidate has inspired the American people. Combined, the campaigns have spent $2 billion attacking each other rather than giving us a reason to believe in a better future (Obama’s closing argument – “Romney’s proposed policies failed our country in the past, we can’t trust him”, Romney’s – “Obama’s failed our country, we can’t trust him”). There is no New Caprica in this election, nothing to make the American people excited about the prospect of change. Rather, we’re faced with the cold reality that the next four years are going to be nearly as difficult as the last. Utlimately, this election boils down to the following question – which candidate do you dislike the least?