This year’s historic US presidential election generated a media frenzy from the time John McCain and Barack Obama began their campaigns. Amid the election ads, presidential debates and parodies, recent studies by Kellogg School faculty reveal a more complex story about the political landscape, one that involves rhetorical skill, voter identity and racial attitudes.

Battle of words

Great orators employ rhetoric to communicate a message that captures the crowd’s imagination. These oratory traditions date to Aristotle and Plato, but while the basics of classical rhetoric remain true, today’s presidential hopefuls convey their ideas through an array of powerful strategic channels.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

But timely messages prove critical too, says Angela Lee, the Mechthild Esser Nemmers professor of marketing. Her research, It’s Time to Vote: The Effect of Matching Message Orientation and Temporal Frame on Political Persuasion, examines the persuasiveness of political campaigns based on when voters receive the message.

“A political campaign is different from an ad for a brand or product or service," says the Kellogg professor. Unlike advertising for consumer products, “a campaign has an important date: election day".

In a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, Lee and her co-authors examine political messages based on what psychologists term construal level theory: abstractness (high-level thinking) or concreteness (low-level thinking). According to the theory, how people think is highly correlated with when they have to make a decision.

Early in his campaign, Obama highlighted “the desirability of the outcome, which is more high-level than the feasibility of his strategy", Lee says. His message of change and hope received some criticism for lacking detail. However, Lee’s findings suggest Obama’s message was an advantageous strategic move in the early stage of the political race.

The people’s choice

While soaring rhetoric has potential political power, it only assumes that power by tapping into the public’s aspirations. Adam Galinsky, the Morris and Alice Kaplan professor of ethics and decision in management, has explored how race may influence voters’ choices.

Galinsky says that most people identify themselves via affirmational statements such as “I am a woman" or “I am a Republican". But one’s identity does not stem solely from these positive declarations. Statements such as “I’m not white" or “I’m not a Democrat" reflect identity as a negational identification, a term that Galinsky and his team, including Kellogg associate professor of management and organizations Katherine Phillips, coined in Negational Racial Identity and Voting Preferences. The research will appear in a forthcoming issue of Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Negational identity is a powerful motivator and “an equal and important meaningful source of social identity", he says. “It’s not only about who you are but who you are not."

Galinsky and his co-authors explored this concept and its election implications.

Galinsky and his colleagues conducted two experiments before the US primary elections. In one experiment, 38 Latino students were asked to write about being Latino. Among the students who reported being Latino, 26% preferred Obama, 58% preferred Clinton and three were not committed. Another group was asked to write about their experiences of not being white. In this group, there was a dramatic change: 58% preferred Obama and 37% preferred Clinton while one was not committed. Another experiment with Asian students produced similar results.

Overall, Galinsky explains this outcome by saying that when people shift their focus from “who they are" to “who they are not", their preferences change. “When people are thinking about their identity as Asian or Latino, it makes them feel less connected to, and lend less support to, an African- American candidate."

Promoting a non-white identity among Latino and Asian populations can be a way to increase votes but that same strategy might damage efforts to woo white voters. Obama’s campaign tried to avoid the issue of race but it surfaced occasionally. Being the first leading African-American contender for the White House, Obama sparked a dialogue about race in America.

Galinsky says that among people in power, personality traits and actions can either “violate or confirm stereotypes of a leader". One of those traits is race, and it plays a powerful part.

A new standard

Exploring how race is perceived in the context of leadership, Phillips and her co-authors produced The White Standard: Racial Bias in Leader Categorization, published in the July edition of Journal of Applied Psychology. When a leader possesses traits consistent with a leadership standard, they found that person is deemed more effective. When race is added to those criteria, though, non-white leaders are evaluated less favourably than their white counterparts.

“People have a schema of what a leader is and what the characteristics of a leader should be," says Phillips, who is co-chairman of the Kellogg Center on the Science of Diversity.

Previous studies show that people see a prototypical leader’s characteristics as overlapping with male stereotypes. In her research, Phillips explored leadership’s racial dimension and found that most of the study’s participants also assumed a leader to be white. Participants evaluated white leaders as more successful and credited them more often for successes. This bias creates a double standard for non-white business leaders, Phillips says, making it more difficult for them to prove themselves and less likely to be given a second chance.

Obama, she says, presents a leadership model that is atypical compared to those that voters have previously endorsed.

“Obama may have to deal with this bias when people evaluate what he does and how he does it," she says. “He will continually have to win people over." To surmount this white leadership standard, Obama must keep highlighting his strengths and “lay out his entire identity" to clear any doubt about his ability.

McCain fit the traditional US presidential leadership model, Phillips says, and the white standard would have been to his benefit, especially with his military credentials. However, Phillips says McCain had to confront other factors that were at odds with the dominant leadership schema, such as his age.

Phillips emphasizes that there are leaders who don’t have all the prototypical characteristics but says that the white standard is likely to remain a key factor.

(This article was written before the results of the US election were declared.)

Aaron Mays is a Kellogg School staff writer.

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