Behavioral Science May Offer Better Voter Insights than Traditional Political Polls, Says LRW

Behavioral Science May Offer Better Voter Insights than Traditional Political Polls, Says LRW

New research suggests Kentucky voters were driven by identity and gut-level perceptions in hotly contested gubernatorial race

LOS ANGELES, Calif. (November 8, 2019) — Political and campaign strategists may want to consider behavioral science insights in addition to or in place of traditional polling, according to a new analysis from consulting and insights firm LRW. The reason, say LRW researchers, is that traditional polling relies on stated opinion and demographic characteristics, even though less conscious factors play a critical role in all decision making, including decisions made inside the voting booth.

“Brands have really started to embrace behavioral science to better understand their customers, but this practice isn’t nearly as widespread in the political world,” says Collette Eccleston, PhD, who heads up LRW’s Pragmatic Brain Science Institute®. “Simply asking someone who they’re voting for, their age, race, gender, and party affiliation can limit insights. But by applying time-tested psychological research, you can get at the core of understanding motivations that voters themselves may not even understand.”

To test this assumption, LRW fielded a poll in Kentucky in the days leading up to the state’s gubernatorial election. The online survey collected data from 508 Kentucky residents over the age of 18 between October 23 and November 2. It included standard polling measures (e.g. whether they were likely to vote, party affiliation, candidate preference), as well as psychologically based measures, including identification with political parties, identification with candidates, classification based on fundamental needs, and perceptions of candidates at a gut level.

Among the survey’s results and subsequent analysis:

  • Fundamental human needs drive party identification. Identification with political party goes deeper than agreement with political issues. For example, among Republicans, the strength of party identity was more strongly related to the relative importance of fundamental needs than an alignment with traditional political attitudes (e.g. “the right to bear arms must be protected from government regulation”).
  • Party matters, but identification with the candidate matters more. Party identity was equally strong for Democrats and Republicans. However, within each of the parties, identification with the respective candidates varied. Democrats identified more strongly with their candidate Andy Beshear than Republicans identified their candidate Matt Bevin. This stronger level of identification with Beshear likely led people to actually go out and vote for him.
  • Identification with candidates are driven by gut-level perceptions. LRW evaluated gut-level perceptions of the candidates using a task called Rapid Choice. Respondents had to quickly say whether the word on the screen described the candidate. Scoring of the response was based on the type of response (i.e. yes or no) and the speed of the response. The research found that respondent identification with each candidate was related to gut-level perceptions of Security (e.g. trusted, reliable) and Appeal (e.g. attractive, charming). It’s perhaps no surprise that a voter would instinctively identify with a politician based on a sense of security. But while people may not be willing to say they are voting for a candidate because he is attractive and charming, LRW’s Rapid Choice data suggest that Appeal influences voter preferences.

“Political candidates are brands, and voters evaluate candidates in many of the same ways they compare brands when they shop for cars or clothes or beverages,” says Dr. Eccleston. “Ultimately, this is about the way humans think and make decisions.”

What else can political strategists learn if they take a cue from the world’s largest brands and dig deeper into behavioral science to understand their audience? As the Presidential primary season gets underway, Dr. Eccleston and her team will continue to build on their findings with additional research into voters in key early states.

Read more about LRW’s case to apply behavioral science and brand research toward political polling at

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