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What the Pollsters Missed

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INFLUENCER: Isobar's Jeremy Pincus examines the emotional motivation of the US electorate

Last Tuesday’s election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States shocked pundits on both sides of the political divide and their professional pollsters. The polls consistently showed an 80% likelihood of a Clinton victory as of the Monday. Clearly, the professionals missed something. Something “yuge”.

What the pollsters missed was the emotional motivation of the electorate and there were certainly signs. Attendance at Trump rallies in August and September were enormous by any standard (338,000), but especially in comparison to Clinton rallies (14,000), prompting Clinton to add Barack and Michelle Obama and musical celebrities Beyoncé, Jay Z, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, and others to build enthusiastic crowds over the past week. 

The size of rallies gives a good indication of the level of enthusiasm since one must take time out of their day to attend a political rally. But it wasn’t just the time of the rally his supporters were willing to expend: some waited nearly 24 hours to see Trump. Add to this the fact that Trump has 3 million more followers on Twitter than does Clinton, a willingness to be messaged anytime, anywhere, and it starts to add up.

The energy required to get all of these Trump supporters engaged at this level has to be sourced from emotional motivation: voters had a heart-felt vision of Trump as the one who would help them relieve their life frustrations, and the one who would help them attain life aspirations that were stultified by the current economic environment. This emotional energy ultimately made the difference in the election – rising Trump voters from the sidelines and driving them to the polls. And future pollsters who want to better predict elections in these emotionally charged times would be well served to understand how to reliably measure emotional motivation. 

Leading up to the first debate, we used our proprietary MindSight Motivational Profiling tool to measure the degree and type of emotional motivation that was present among supporters of Clinton, supporters of Trump, and among those who were still undecided. The data provided deeper insights into what specific emotional motivations ultimately shaped voters’ behaviour.

The results found that Trump supporters were significantly more emotionally charged when thinking about the state of the country than were Clinton supporters, and even though there were roughly equal number of Trump and Clinton supporters at the time of the election, our data suggests that the Trump supporters were much more emotionally motivated to go to the polls. By contrast, many Clinton supporters may simply not have been motivated enough to bother voting.

A closer look at the numbers reveals some interesting patterns in this election where the choice was fundamentally between continuity and change. Both Trump supporters and undecided voters were especially likely to feel anxious, to have a sense of failure and even incompetence. These feelings of frustration can be highly motivating – and are the feelings with which “Making America Great Again” resonated.

In contrast, Clinton supporters already felt quite good about their place in America, and were overall emotionally positive about the country. More specifically, they felt a sense of empowerment, belonging and being cared for. Motivation is all about the desire for change – and the strong positivity of Clinton supporters about their place in America naturally bred complacency.

The morning after the election, Michael Moore lambasted his fellow liberals on Facebook: "What you mean to say is that you were in a bubble and weren't paying attention to your fellow Americans and their despair. Years of being neglected by both parties, the anger and the need for revenge against the system only grew. Then Trump came along and promised to destroy that system. Trump's victory is no surprise.” 

While many pollsters and pundits shake their head in confusion over the past few months and how the results could have been so off, they could have been looking to emotional science – the true motivator behind all decisions.

Jeremy Pincus is Ph.D., Director, Research & Strategy, Isobar

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