The presidential candidates have been hard at work. The second Republican presidential debate has taken place. Donald Trump wasn’t there, but we know the campaign platform both have been promoting to encourage their election. President Biden focuses on the theme that his administration has made the country a better democracy and more prosperous. He warns that his re-election is key to preserving democratic institutions from Donad Trump and the Republicans.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, promises to remake the federal government and to “make America great again” while continuing to insist he won the last election. His plans include eliminating the constraints on the power of the president in order to made radical changes to improve America.

Biden’s approach emphasizes the improvements his administration has made in restoring traditional democracy to America as well as warning of the harmful consequences if Trump is elected. Trump’s approach is the same as when he last ran. Numerous promises to improve the lives of Americans and eliminate the problems the country is facing.

Even though the evidence is clear that Trump’s similar promises were not kept (or in many cases not even attempted to be kept) Trump’s approach is far more appealing to the average voter’s human decision making than is Biden’s.

Marlon Brando once said: “An actor is someone, who, if you aren’t talking about them, isn’t listening.” That’s a rule every politician should understand. Neuroscience studies of cognitive behavior show that voting behavior is reflected in the subconscious portion of the brain that is concerned with survival and self-interest. Studies indicate that people who have a vested interest are impacted subconsciously to decide in their personal favor on an issue or candidate. Psychologically, opinions are determined by self-interest. In 2006, Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen, PhD, and colleagues published a study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience describing political judgment and decision-making. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the team examined the brain activity of committed partisan men before the 2004 U.S. presidential election as they listened to positive or negative statements about their chosen candidates. The study results suggested that the notion of “partisan reasoning” is an oxymoron. That most of the time, they “feel their way” to decisions and beliefs rather than use “their thinking caps.” What’s more, Westen found that we become even more partisan as we age because we are faced with partisan decisions again and again.

Emotions play a role in every decision we make about voting for a political candidate. Emotions not only influence our candidate evaluations directly, but they also influence our perceptions of our responses to political policies, our attention to and learning of political information, and our political behavior. Within political science, the emotions most often targeted for study are those that are both high in political relevance and highly arousing, especially the negative experiences of fear/anxiety and anger.

So, when we look at the polls and studies about what concerns and worries the average American, what do we find? The research makes it clear that their self-interest consistently identifies these concerns:

  1. Dysfunctional government and poor political leadership E.g., the inability of Democrats and Republicans to work together
  2. The overall lack of stability of the economy. E.g., the budget deficit & excessive government spending
  3. The high cost of living. E.g., the affordability food, gas and health care
  4. Uncontrolled immigration E.g., record numbers of immigrants entering the United States
  5. Guns, crime and violence E.g., violent crimes, drugs & loss of moral values

These are the primary self-interest issues Americans worry about. Research has found that no matter what people say are their reasons for supporting a political candidate, when they vote they will choose the candidate they believe will support their personal concerns. If that is true, presidential candidates and others running for office should focus upon the things people are really emotionally worried about.

Donald Trump has clearly learned that you get support of people by identifying their motivating issues of self-interest and promising to do something about it. Even more significant, he has understood the research that even when you fail to carry out the promises, the support still continues when the failure is explained by excuses, even invalid explanations. That’s proven by the documented broken promises of his presidency. As a 2016 candidate Trumps major promises included he would work for working families rather than wealthy donors and corporate interests. He promised to lower drug costs and improve health care. He said he would stop factories from moving overseas. None of these occurred or were even attempted to be implemented. Yet, present surveys show 66% of Republicans and conservative independents have a favorable opinion of Trump. And thats true in spite of his impeachments as well as his criminal charges.

On the other hand, President’s Biden’s campaign platform that emphasizes how much better Americans are doing since he was elected misses the voters self-interest target completely. Offering up the political jargon of the past isn’t going to work either. What does work is addressing voters self-interest issues clearly and telling voters what the plans are to do something about it. That means that while in Arizona giving a speech,  his number one point should be about uncontrolled immigration, a primary concern of Arizona voters, rather than boasting about America’s improved status. Voters care about dysfunctional Congress, an economy that involves billions of dollars for nation wide projects and the war in Ukraine. Voters are faced with daily news of crime, violence and a loss of national moral values. They want to hear about solving the issues that impact them now.

Hopefully, President Biden’s political advisors will abandon the tactic of boasting about how well America is doing and the accomplishments of his administration. Instead, it would be wise to start focusing on the issues that people are personally concerned about and addressing the solutions.

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