As summer turns to fall, the gubernatorial campaigns of Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Sen. Wendy Davis have ritualistically taken to the airwaves in an effort to shape the outcome of the upcoming election. While much attention has focused on whether a particular ad has “hit the mark,” little attention has been paid to how the separate emotional tones of these ads reflect the strategic plan of each campaign. So far it has been a classic contest between fear and anxiety, and hope and stability, and these rhetorical choices do a lot to tell us about what the candidates really think about the current state of the race.
The impact of emotion on voters’ cognitive processes and in some cases, their behavior has been well documented by several prominent scholars. An emotion like hope signals that all is well and that we can rely on our habits, such as in the case of politics with partisanship or ideology. So if you feel hopeful and consider yourself a Republican, even loosely, you’re likely to vote Republican. On the other hand, anxiety signals to those experiencing it that they need to stop and gather new information. Relying on a habitual approach in the face of anxiety an uncomfortable emotion defined by its uncertainty about a given situation may be harmful to one’s interests, so anxious people feel compelled to stop and learn more.
Davis kicked off her fall advertising campaign with “A Texas Story,” an ad that outlines the brutal rape of a woman by a vacuum cleaner salesman. There is scary music, grainy footage and an ominous, foreboding tone. These cues are intended to induce anxiety. As the viewer is in this induced state of fear, Davis then presents the information she wants you to learn: Abbott’s minority opinion as a member of the Texas Supreme Court that the vacuum cleaner company was not liable for the salesman’s actions. An anxious viewer might then ask friends or family about the accusation, or turn to a quick online search. The anxiety-inducing ad is an obvious contrast to Abbott’s hopeful message, and Davis’ other recent ads maintain the same tone.
For Davis to have any chance in November, she will need to shake up, or at least loosen, the fundamental partisan dynamics underlying the electorate, the same dynamics that Abbott is looking to maintain. Her use of scary music and intense subject matters are tools for this purpose. This anxiety is beneficial to Davis, just as Abbott’s reliance on hope is beneficial to him. It’s not that either candidate is running a positive or negative campaign per se. It is that each candidate is running the campaign that gives him or her the best chance to win given the electoral context each faces.
There are other elements of Davis’ campaign, in particular the release of her memoir, that provide plenty of hope and resolve for her supporters, but nonetheless, she has chosen to begin the public phase of the election season with a slate of ads that are clearly intended to induce anxiety with the hope of shaking Texans from their reflexively Republican positions. Given this reflexive orientation, Abbott will find success assuming this election proceeds on a business-as-usual track. Producing a hopeful electorate gives Abbott the strategic advantage of reinforcing Republican voters’ partisan predispositions.
By paying attention to the emotional dynamics underlying these prominent campaign ads for each candidate, one can get a clearer sense of how each campaign really views this race, regardless of what you may read in their fundraising emails. In the end, an emotional electorate will pick the next governor of Texas, and the campaigns wouldn’t have it any other way
Bethany Albertson is an assistant professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin and researches in areas related to political attitudes and persuasion. Joshua Blank is manager of polling and research for the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin.
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— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) September 29, 2014