How We Choose Political Candidates

Why do we have such bewilderingly diverse presidential candidates this year, and why are they arguing so passionately for such different kinds of change?

The passion is because while every President must now declaim as each year begins, “The state of our union is strong” many believe instead that, as candidate Reagan said in 1980 and candidate Trump says now, it is urgently necessary to “Make America Great again.”

But why do we have such different ideas about who can make America great again?  The recently developed Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) offers an explanation.

The direction we want our nation to take is governed by the relative value we place on half a dozen different “moral foundations,” i.e., intuitive ethical values:

  • Care: We feel compassion for those who are vulnerable or suffering
  • Proportionality: We feel people should get what they deserve, good or bad
  • Liberty: We resent restrictions on our choices
  • Loyalty: We keep track of who is “us” and and hate traitors
  • Authority: We dislike those who undermine authority and sow chaos
  • Sanctity: We feel some things must be protected from degradation

The relative importance of the values differs from individual to individual and can change with experience but the pattern is set to a large extent by the society in which we live, and each society’s value system evolves over the long haul depending on its circumstances.

Traditional societies that are vulnerable to attack place high value on loyalty, authority, and sanctity to defend themselves.  Trading societies place higher value on liberty and fairness and tend to be more open.  And so on.

But it’s important to remember that nations are in many cases made up of diverse groups — the USA, for example, is better understood as eleven nations.  And those groups are made up of diverse families.  That’s why there are diverse value systems within nations.

So how does MFT shed light on the support for this year’s diverse presidential candidates?

The following charts show how a representative sample of supporters of each candidate over- or under-valued each of the moral foundations relative to the average American.  Since people tend to place similar values on loyalty, authority and sanctity, they are lumped together as a single category.

Among supporters of the leading candidates we see the strongest difference is on proportionality, the belief that people should get what they deserve, good or bad, with an inverse relationship to the feeling that we should care for those who are suffering.

The major difference for Sanders and Clinton is the value their supporters place on liberty vs authority.  The major difference between supporters of Carson and the other Republican candidates is that Carson supporters under-value liberty and do not under-value caring.

Candidate Supporter Moral Foundations - Tier 1

Supporters of Trump have a more traditional Republican value profile, somewhat over-valuing proportionality and authority while somewhat under-valuing caring relative to Americans as a whole.

Among supporters of the second tier candidates, the consistent difference is the value placed on proportionality.  There is no pattern to the other differences.

The stark difference between supporters of Huckabee and Paul confirms the validity of the theory — Huckabee supporters over-value loyalty-authority-sanctity and under-value liberty while Paul supporters are the reverse.  Paul supporters also under-value caring.

The weight supporters of Bush and Fiorina place on each moral foundation is much closer to that of the average American.  They are in the second tier because they have not energized passionate support.

Candidate Supporter Moral Foundations - Tier 2

This research does not tell us who will be our next President, nor even which pair (or more?) will be candidates in the election.  It could help us make a guess if we knew how many voters have which value-weighting profile, and we could estimate that using the Eleven Nations map since the population of each “nation” presumably has a relatively homogeneous moral profile.

But my aim is not to predict the outcome of elections.  What struck me when I saw the MFT research was a form of deja vu.

Early in my career, when I was doing product development, I sometimes wondered how people who wanted what we sold could be so stupid as to buy others’ offerings when ours were so much better.  It was only later, doing market research, that I realized the issue is not what customers want to buy, but why.  The deja vu was when I realized it’s the same with supporters of political candidates.

Those who don’t support our favored candidate are not necessarily stupid — although they may be that, too.  They have a different sense of what’s most important, of how things should be.   Their morality and ours are different.  That’s why democracy was invented .

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