Reminded to be Afraid: Anxiety and Advertisements in the 2014 Texas Gubernatorial Election

As summer turns to fall, the gubernatorial campaigns of Attorney General Greg Abbott and State Senator Wendy Davis have ritualistically taken to the airwaves in an effort to shape the outcome of the upcoming election. The tone of these ads, especially Davis’, but also some of Abbott’s, has received plenty of attention. While much of that attention has focused on whether or not a particular ad has “hit the mark" in terms of their production quality, their messaging, or their factual accuracy, a less explored dimension of these advertisements is how their divergent emotional tones reflect the strategic imperatives for each campaign - so far a classic contest between fear and anxiety and hope and stability.

Political psychology research has a lot to say about the impact of emotion on a voters' cognitive processes and, in some cases, their behavior. While we might mythologize citizens who base their votes on the specific policy platforms offered by the candidates, most modern political campaigns tend to appeal to our emotions, with fewer direct appeals to reason. We remember the most famous political advertisements because they make us feel something. For example, LBJ’s Daisy ad made Americans anxious about nuclear war; Reagan’s Morning in America ad made them hopeful about the country’s future. These appeals resonate with the American public, and the emotions we experience when we see these ads affect our political attitudes. 

Several prominent scholars have demonstrated the relationship between emotion and partisanship: an emotion like hope signals that all is going well and that we can rely on our habits, like partisanship or ideology. If you feel hopeful and consider yourself a Democrat (even loosely), you're likely to vote Democrat; if you consider yourself a Republican, you'll likely vote Republican – and why wouldn’t you if everything is fine?

On the other hand, anxiety signals to those experiencing it that they need to stop, look around, and gather new information. Relying on a habitual approach in the face of anxiety - an emotion defined by its uncertainty about a given situation - may be harmful to our interests, thus, our increased and uncontrolled desire to stop and learn more.

The classic example of this involves a snake in the grass (that turns out to be a hose). When you walk around the corner of a house and see, out of the corner of your eye, a coiled up, black...thing, your heart automatically races, you involuntarily jump back, and then try, as quickly as possible, to ascertain what you’re looking at. Oh, a hose. No harm no foul. While yours may, in retrospect, feel like an overreaction, had it been a snake, and had you gone about your usual business, you could have been bitten. Anxiety’s job is to prevent this from happening.

Given this information about the role of emotion in political information processing, what might the candidates' advertisements so far tell us about the strategic imperatives of their campaigns?

Up until this point, Abbott’s campaign has aired broadly positive, hopeful messages, like these:


The intention of these ads is to make voters feel hopeful about Texas and especially about Greg Abbott. Abbott’s adversity is part of his story, and now you, the voter, get to feel a part of his triumph (“one more time”). And don’t you wish that your mother-in-law had such glowing things to say about you?

Again, hope signals to voters that it’s okay to rely on habitual processes and predispositions, like party identification. Given Texas’ reflexively Republican orientation and conservative ideology, Abbott will be successful assuming this election proceeds on a status quo/business as usual track. Producing a hopeful electorate is strategically consonant with this goal. 

Abbott and his campaign have looked at the electoral landscape, and are seeking ways to reproduce the these outcomes:

Election Year Democratic Two Party Vote Share Republican Two Party Vote Share Difference
2010 44% 56% +12 R
2006 43% 57% +14 R
2002 41% 59% +18 R
1998 31% 69% +38 R
1994 46% 54% +8 R

In addition to making Republicans vote their party identification, hope, when attached to a specific candidate early in a campaign, is just as predictive of one’s ultimate vote choice as is party identification (classically and not surprisingly, the most predictive element). Being hopeful gives Abbott the strategic advantage of both reinforcing Republican voters’ predispositions, but also attaching unattached voters to his brand - advantages that his Democratic opponent doesn’t enjoy.

Wendy Davis kicked off her fall advertising campaign with “A Texas Story,” an ad that outlines the brutal rape of a woman by a Kirby Vacuum Cleaner salesman: 

Notice the scary music, the grainy footage, the ominous and foreboding tone? These cues are intended to induce anxiety. The viewer is expected to be in their kitchen, hear that tone emanating out of their television, and ask themselves, “what’s going on?” As the viewer is in this state of anxiety, Davis then presents the information she wants you to learn: Abbott’s minority opinion as a member of the Texas Supreme Court ruling held that the Kirby Vacuum Cleaner Company was not liable for the salesman’s actions. This is an obvious departure from Abbott’s hopeful message, and Davis’ other recent ads, though different in subject matter, maintain the same tone:





For Davis to have any chance come November, she will need to shake up, or at least loosen, the fundamental partisan dynamics underlying the electorate, the same dynamics that Abbott is looking to maintain. Her use of scary music and intense subject matters are tools for this purpose. This anxiety is beneficial to Davis, just as Abbott’s reliance on hope is beneficial to him. It’s not that either candidate is running a positive or negative campaign per se, designations that oversimplify the reality and sophistication of modern campaigns, rather, it’s that each candidate is running the campaign that gives them the best chance to win given the electoral context they face. It's fair to note that other elements of Davis' campaign, in particular, the release of her memoir (aptly titled, "Forgetting to be Afraid"), provides plenty of hope and resolve for her supporters, but nonetheless, she has chosen to begin the public phase of the election season with a slate of ads that are clearly intended to induce anxiety.

It’s not that these are the only ads that the campaigns are running (in fact, Abbott just released a new negative ad highlighting a debunked claim that Davis' work has been part of an FBI investigation), or that they represent the only aspect of either’s strategy, but they do represent the biggest overall expenditures that each will make. By looking at the emotional dynamics underlying these messages, one can get a clearer sense of how each campaign really views this race – regardless of what you may read in their fundraising emails.

Bethany Albertson is an assistant professor in the Government Department at the University of Texas at Austin.