Duncan Watts has written an incredibly interesting and plausible analysis of the Kerry sweep in the primaries.
His analysis relates the Democratic primary results to a series of social decision-making experiments performed at Princeton in the 1950s by social psychologist Solomon Asch. These experiments tested an individual’s ability to disagree with his or her peers.
Asch demonstrated a stunning effect:
Faced with a decision that, in isolation, no one would ever get wrong, the unwitting subjects went against the evidence of their own eyes about one-third of the time.
In psychology, Asch’s result is famous for its implications about decisions that are influenced by the previous decisions of others. Basically, Asch found if others have indicated a choice before we are required to make a choice, our choice will be influenced by their choice.
Duncan explains that in primary elections, we are influenced by the choices made in previous primary elections. As soon as one candidate clearly starts to look like a winner, the rest of of the voters are just tagging along. In this case less than 1 percent of all voters effectively decided that Kerry was to be the Democratic nominee. Before you choke on this, read Duncan’s article. It will be most informative. He is an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University and author of Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age.
Duncan goes on to mention how the subjects of these early experiments always rationalized their decisions afterwards, even when the reasons were observably false. This has some interesting ramifications, because their choices were not based upon the data presented, but by the earlier choices.
This does a lot to explain why many who chose Kerry shrug off any data that would invalidate their choice. They did not make a choice based on anything about Kerry. They chose Kerry because he was a clear favorite. Now they have chosen, nothing will shake them, or will it?
Duncan did not extend his article to speculation on the final decision, but I’m willing to take a shot at that by extrapolating the data from his article.
If Asch’s experiments are bourne out, when Kerry and Bush are going head to head, those who have voted in the primaries will vote the same way in the election.
The only possible change in the balance will come from those who did not partipate in the primaries. I have no idea how big that group is and I hesitate to think of them as uncommitted voters – they just haven’t voted yet. Many will vote along party lines when Election Day arrives.
Based on Duncan’s analysis, at least 30 percent of the uncommitted will choose a president on the basis of who looks most like a winner based on polls and the people they look to for guidance.
That leaves only a small percent of the uncommitted voters who can be swayed by logic. What a challenge! What an opportunity for a relatively small group to change the course of history.