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A photo of a hand putting a ballot into a box.

Political novices, say U professor Akshay Rao, are more persuaded by abstract messages when the time to choose between candidates is far off.

Getting that vote

In political campaigns, timing is almost everything. Candidates communicate with voters over a long period of time before voters actually vote. What candidates say to these voters is, of course, important, but it turns out that when they say it also influences voter preferences.

Why has Barack Obama's reliance on lofty rhetoric succeeded thus far is a puzzle addressed in the paper "It's Time to Vote: The Effect of Matching Message Orientation and Temporal Frame on Political Persuasion," forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research. The research, coauthored by the University of Minnesota's Akshay Rao, Hakkyun Kim (Concordia University) and Angela Lee (Northwestern University), demonstrates that the timing and content of political messages affects voters, particularly swing voters.

When Obama began his presidential campaign, his rhetoric emphasized abstract concepts such as hope, change, and judgment. In contrast, 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 taxicabs 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," he adds. "It is only as the election gets closer that voters start paying attention to concrete details of the candidates' 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."

The researchers demonstrate 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," says Rao. "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." While the experiments focused on political contexts, the researchers say 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 authors 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," says Rao.

More information about Rao's research and a copy of the paper may be found at the Carlson School of Management.