Washington, Aug 15 : In political campaigns, what candidates say to the voters is undoubtedly important. Now, a research team, including an Indian-origin scientist, has shown that the timing when they say those things also influences voter preferences.
The study, co-authored by the University of Minnesota's Akshay Rao, Hakkyun Kim (Concordia) and Angela Lee (Northwestern), shows that the timing and content of political messages affects voters particularly swing voters.
When U.S. Senator Barack Obama started his presidential campaign, his rhetoric emphasized abstract concepts such as hope, change and judgment.
On contrary, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton and other candidates frequently presented detailed, concrete plans on a host of topics ranging from the Iraq War to the economy and health care reform.
Political commentators criticized Obama for his lack of specifics, yet voters continued to respond to his message.
Rao offers this illustration to characterize the research: "Imagine taking a vacation to Cancun six months from now. You are probably thinking about beaches, sunsets and other abstract information. On the other hand, if you were going to Cancun tomorrow, you would be thinking about taxi cabs and boarding passes -- concrete concerns -- making you more likely to process information about speedy check-in or the phone number of a taxi."
"Similarly, a voter facing a choice in the distant future is less interested in particular plans and policies and is more persuaded by broad, abstract ideas. It is only as the election gets closer that voters start paying attention to concrete details of the candidate's positions. In essence, when the choice is far away, a voter is more likely to think in abstract terms, but as the choice approaches, the voter puts more weight on the details," he added.
The researchers show that this temporal effect in a series of studies and observe that it is relatively uninformed voters who are most subject to this effect.
"What this finding implies is that the people who typically decide elections -- voters in the middle -- are most susceptible to this type of persuasion. Political novices tend to be more persuaded by abstract messages when the choice is far off, and by concrete messages when the choice is imminent," said Rao.
The experiments focused on political contexts, but the underlying argument applies equally well to other contexts, such as deciding which college to attend, which automobile to purchase or where to live when one retires.
The researchers advise -- particularly in this time of long campaign cycles and multiple media channels -- that campaigns think strategically about the timing of messages targeted toward select markets, such as swing voters.
"The fit of the right message with the right voter at the right time has never been more important to the outcome of a race," Rao said.
The study is published in the Journal of Consumer Research.