Data Lost, Emotion Won: Lessons from a Shock Election



Neuroscience is clear on this: The emotional brain drives decision-making. And given the right circumstances, can easily overcome a cognitive disconnect created by facts and logic. In the war between information and emotion in the brain, the fight is over before it’s begun. Big data can be compelling. Powerful emotion is irresistible.


Among the mountain of forensics this election is sure to produce, one of the most provocative is how the media, and the data they relied on, were so spectacularly wrong about the likely outcome. How and why did almost every predictor, prognosticator, and pundit so completely and uniformly miss or ignore what was really going on in the electorate?

Mike Barnicle, the famous Boston based journalist, put it this way during a discussion on MSNBC’s Morning Joe:

“What has happened here – and you could see this coming, you could really see this coming – too many people in our business, they missed the one real draw that brings a lot of people to the polls. And it’s emotional. The ability for people to feel something about their candidate, and to feel that they can access their candidate emotionally.”

From Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer prize winning biographer, historian, and political commentator:

“What Trump provided was an appeal to the emotions of the people. He told a story. He had a story that was understandable: ‘I’m going to make America great again.’ People feel that the country has passed them by; people feel that they want something different. And everything else on the other side was a series of programs. They might have helped people in lots of ways, but they didn’t connect emotionally.”

On paper, Hillary Clinton offered intelligent ideas, reasonable solutions, detailed policies. Her deficit on “likability,” her struggle to “connect,” is data-point language for an absence of emotion in the scheme of her appeal. Over the course of her career that’s been a challenge. In her bid for the presidency it was catastrophic. Marketing and sales people, take heed: your technical data, your facts and features, do not engage or persuade your customer.

Donald Trump, by contrast, offered questionable ideas, irrational solutions, and vague policies. And though few media observers missed his ability to connect more effectively with supporters, they vastly underestimated the emotional power embodied by voters desperate for change. The critical lesson here for sales and marketing? Find the pain. Locate – or even create – the discomfort that begs a solution. From the neuroscience perspective, emotional displacement of the type that emerges from fear or uncertainty is fertile ground for persuasion.

Emotional displacement of the type that emerges from fear or uncertainty is fertile ground for persuasion.

Trump supporters heard from their candidate what many others also heard that was ill-conceived or even offensive. But they also got what they didn’t get from anyone else: visibility. Recognition of their hardships and fears, and someone to take them seriously. The media failed in virtually all of that.

“People want to see themselves reflected in the stories being told,” said Michael Steele, former chair of the RNC. “That’s a lot of the animus that’s directed toward the media – that they don’t see themselves as being represented.” It was all-too easy for the media to dismiss the support of such an easily lampooned figure as Donald Trump. And it came at a cost to their basic integrity as investigators.

Selena Zito, writing for The Atlantic back in September, was one of the lone voices seeking to draw attention to the real circumstances and attributes of Trump supporters. She articulated a significant and even profound difference in how Trump’s messages were being interpreted by different audiences:

The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.

What’s the basis for this ability on the part of Trump supporters to filter messages and find meaning that resonates? Belief. Whether justified or not, belief that comes from a strong emotional connection can rationalize almost anything. It’s the kind of belief that constitutes a holy grail for a brand or a salesperson. It only happens in the emotional brain. And it’s precisely what Clinton failed to achieve. All the ground game and all the polling data in the world could neither predict nor account for the zealous fervor of an emotionally driven electorate.

There was perhaps just one media figure who was as harshly critical of Trump as he was deeply sympathetic to Trump supporters – a deft cognitive task abdicated by most of the rest of the press.  In his widely acclaimed documentary, Trumpland, filmmaker Michael Moore addresses head-on the often troubling rhetoric of the then-candidate, and it’s relationship to his supporters:

“Whether Trump means it or not is kind of irrelevant because he’s saying these things to people who are hurting. And it’s why every beaten-down, nameless, forgotten working stiff, who used to be part of what was called the middle class, loves Trump. He is the human molotov cocktail that they’ve been waiting for. The human hand-grenade that they can legally throw into the system that stole their lives from them.”

Business leaders, marketers, and salespeople need to be investigative journalists when it comes to their customers, and they need to do a better job than the majority of those who covered the 2016 presidential campaign. Data need not be rejected, but neither should it be relied upon to the exclusion of direct engagement with customers to learn their plight and to connect on an emotional level. Leave the building. Make eye contact. Ask and listen.

As the great Bob Woodward of The Washington Post relates:

I had a city editor tell me very early on: “Get your ass out of the chair and go there.”

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  • valeryvie

    Spot-on Mr Granger!