Maybe you're a Republican and believe Mitt Romney will sail to victory on the lasting momentum of his early October debate performance. Or maybe you're a Democrat who thinks that President Obama's consistent policy messages in the late summer and early fall will remind voters to award him with a second term in November.
But if your candidate of choice wants his message to leave a lasting impact on undecided or low-information voters as they cast their ballots, he may want to focus on having a strong closing week, University of Nebraska-Lincoln political scientist Dona-Gene Mitchell says.
Mitchell researches the effects of time on the political process -- and specifically, how long information endures or how fast it fades from people's minds during multi-week campaigns. Her most recent findings, published in the American Journal of Political Science, suggest that in a tightly controlled information environment, issue-related information about a candidate was supplanted quickly from voters' minds by new data.
Character and personal facts about a candidate, meanwhile, were found to stick in people's memories a little longer -- but not by much.
"I find a remarkably limited role for enduring information effects," Mitchell said. "In other words, during campaigns, citizens appear to operate as if they have short-term memory loss where information this week mattered but the effects quickly faded a week later."
Mitchell's work employs a unique approach into the study of how different kinds of candidate information is processed. Unlike previous experimental studies, which had been done in a single sitting, the method releases different types of information about a candidate to study participants over 12 weeks. This approach, Mitchell said, brings new insights into the lifespan of campaign information -- and just how much of it helps voters to modify their judgments about a candidate.
In her most recent study, information was provided once a week about a hypothetical Republican candidate for Congress. The type of information varied: Sometimes it was about the candidate's character or communicated a personal detail; others, his positions on different political issues. After receiving the information each week, participants then evaluated the candidate.
Some information, such as the candidate's party affiliation, exhibited stronger staying power with the study's participants. But Mitchell said she was surprised at how other less sticky information, particularly where a candidate stood on a single issue, was displaced to make room for new facts. Partisanship combined with new short-term information to push other stockpiled information about the candidate out of participants' minds.
"What is particularly striking about these findings is that the rapid rate at which information effects decay may be greater than previously imagined," Mitchell said.
Does this mean that whoever gets the last word in the campaign can expect to spend the next four years in the White House? Not necessarily, Mitchell said. While the study brings new understanding into the lifespans of certain types of political messages, it was primarily designed to look at low-information campaigns such as races for the House of Representatives and not forecast presidential horse races. But it does provide food for thought in a presidential campaign in which a relatively small slice of undecided or low-information voters in a handful of states may swing the election.
Mitchell's upcoming research looks further into the temporal dynamics on political information effects. A forthcoming study examines how much more voters pay attention when a staunchly partisan official becomes more inconsistent in his or her views. She also is determining empirically how much the timing of a political scandal, and the amount of coverage devoted to the scandal, matters in a race.
"We have only a limited understanding of how and to what extent people modify their judgments as new information becomes available and the salience of old information fades," she said. "But what we know from this research is that timing definitely matters."
- Dona-Gene Mitchell. It's About Time: The Lifespan of Information Effects in a Multiweek Campaign. American Journal of Political Science, 2012; 56 (2): 298 DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2011.00549.x
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