How Voting Is Like Social Sharing


Over at The Washington Post, Greg Sargent notes that Democrats have a frequent turnout problem in midterm elections, and it doesn't appear to be going away. Despite having sunk tons of cash and effort into boosting turnout amongst core consituencies, it looks likely that the party's midterm turnout problem is going to continue this year. Here's Sargent: 

What stands out is how intractable this problem appears. Democrats have thrown everything they have at solving it — emphasizing a slate economic and cultural issues designed to give women, minorities, and young voters a reason to care about who controls the Senate — but the GOP edge is either the same or even more pronounced than it was in polling last spring.

Democrats have long known this problem would bedevil them through Election Day, which is why they invested $60 million in the Bannock Street Project to mobilize voters who sat out 2010.

But when the Obamacare web site crashed last fall, and predictions of a Dem bloodbath were everywhere, it became apparent to Democrats that voter mobilization would be even more crucial to holding the Senate than previously thought. Bad news about the President's signature domestic achievement, combined with a sluggish recovery and continuing Washington gridlock, risked depressing core voter enthusiasm in truly debilitating ways, particularly given the red-state tilt of the Senate map. 

Obviously part of this is just the structure of the midterm map. But what this makes me wonder is if voter turnout is somewhat like social sharing. As anyone who logs into Facebook with any frequency knows, people like to share things that either make them very happy or very excited or very upset. So your Facebook feed is probably filled with cute puppies, news about the new Avengers movie, and various local and national outrages.

What you see less of, though, are things that make people glum and depressed. People are less likely to share, say, news about disappointing movie casting (unless, of course, this news also makes them very angry). 

The research tends to back up the anecdata here. In a 2011 study for the Journal of Marketing Research, two marketing researchers from the Wharton School looked at what makes content go viral and found that "content that evokes high-arousal positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety) emotions is more viral. Content that evokes low-arousal, or deactivating, emotions (e.g., sadness) is less viral."

I suspect there's a similar tendency when it comes to voting. People will turn out when they are excited, as many were by Obama's first presidential campaign, or when they are outraged and upset, as a lot of Republicans are now. And in this election, Democrats are depressed (or disinterested), and Republicans are angry, and that gives Republicans an advantage.