Thursday, April 24, 2008

It's the little things that count

Low-information signaling is the use of minor cues to form impressions about political candidates. Joe Klein of Time dismisses these as “stupid things”, but he is dismissing the actual importance of this signaling. Low-information signaling is the actual information that leaks through to the public around the framing the candidate and his campaign create. His examples of stupid things are whether you know how to roll a bowling ball or wear an American flag pin. All of the references he uses are to perceptions of recent Democratic presidential candidates; Dukakis in a tankers helmet, John Kerry wind surfing and Bill Clinton eating junk food at McDonalds. I suspect we all get an image of the three of them when we read that and the only positive one is that Clinton is a regular guy.

Journalists like to dismiss this type of evaluation as unimportant because it is not issue oriented. Samuel Popkin, a political scientist, in “The Reasoning Voter”, implies that low-information signaling is an important part of a broader definition of issues. Voters look to this information to determine if the candidate is someone they like. The elites like to dismiss the importance of the average voter looking at a candidate and making a mental note of whether this is a person they would like to sit down and have a beer with. In the three examples above it seems the answer is two no's and a yes. It would be embarrassing to be seen with Dukakis, Kerry is just not average enough to relate too and Clinton would be fun to drink beer with.

The low-information signaling is used to square the candidate’s public persona with what seems to be his/her real personality. This is why Senator Obama is having a difficult time shaking the Rev. Wright controversy and his comment about the bitter small town folk. These two things do not square at all with what he says from the campaign hustings, but when aligned with other low-information signals they have a ring of truth that someone is trying to obscure.

This is not something that any of us is immune to. It is likely (about a 75% probability) that the party affiliation will determine our eventual vote, but in the primary these signals come into play. How else can Senator Clinton’s loss of the nomination be explained? She is, based on resume, the better candidate, but almost no one sees her personality as aligned with her official persona. This is what has hurt her. The “sniper fire in Bosnia” comments openly exposed what had been low-information signaling. People just do not trust her.

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