Campaign 2012: Using horse sense to decide

Public opinion has been swinging wildly, but as the 2012 campaign moves into higher gear voters will start making up their minds. Maybe herd mentality isn't a bad way to decide.

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Silhouetted Iowans listening to a presidential candidate in Waterloo, Iowa.

Early next month, Iowans will drive through the winter night to stand in groups at caucus locations to show support for their favorite presidential candidate. Bless them for their fortitude. Then in fast succession will come primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Those three states are small enough for politicians to get to know individual voters at county fairs, coffee shops, and house parties. 

But the intimacy of those early primaries can’t be sustained across a nation as big and diverse as the United States. That’s why all eyes are on Florida as the state’s Jan. 31 primary nears.

Florida is where campaigns have to demonstrate that they are industrial-strength operations. They need sophisticated hierarchies, complex efforts to get out the vote, and massive advertising budgets for multiple media markets. Florida is likely to be make-or-break in both the Republican primaries and the November general election. Linda’s report makes clear that many Floridians are still making up their minds. Millions of other Americans, too.

So how do you decide? Do you vote on a single issue like climate change or taxes? Default to party loyalty? Immerse yourself in position papers? That’s all good citizenship, but generations of political scientists have shown that voters’ decisionmaking is mostly based on intangibles. The historian James David Barber, for instance, argued that voters judge a candidate not on the issues but on fuzzy qualities such as whether he or she has self-confidence and enjoys political life. The pollster Robert Teeter once observed that voters “know that the issues a president will have to face will change with time. But his character will always remain the same.”

Aristotle called man a “political animal,” arguing that what separated humans from other species was the desire to build society through political association. We know better now. Politics is going on all over the animal world. They just don’t talk about it like we do. Jane Goodall taught us about primate politics. E.O. Wilson described the intricacies of ant society. Even the late showman Steve Irwin had something to say about crocodile culture besides “crikey.” So how does the wild kingdom decide who leads and who follows?

I recently heard a fascinating observation about political animals from a specialist on horses. Koelle Simpson contacted me in response to our Nov. 28 special report on leadership. Based in Scottsdale, Ariz., Ms. Simpson does work ranging from equine training to human life coaching. While she acknowledges that people too easily overlay human experience on animal behavior, she nevertheless sees important connections.

Despite the image of the rearing stallion at the head of the herd, she says, horses follow matriarchs, and “the matriarch is not the leader because of bullying. She doesn’t dominate, schmooze, or butter up other horses to win her position.” Instead, she is calm, intuitive, and relaxed. The herd wants to be with her because that attitude is not just comfortable but is the best state for sensing danger.

In humans, Simpson notes, words frequently override intuition. “From my perspective,” she says, “politicians and media trigger fear to get attention.” Listen to the voice but not the words, she says. Watch the behavior, not the stylized gestures. The candidate who knows who he or she is, who remains calm even in a tense situation – that could be someone worth considering.

After the horse race has ended and all the verbiage of 2012 has been debated, broadcast, written about, hashed over, and retweeted, intuition may be the only sensible way left to decide.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor. 

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.