How much truth is there in political advertising, and how much do voters take the trouble to find out who they’re voting for?
These questions are raised by an incredible story out of America where a white Republican male won an unwinnable Democrat ‘black’ seat on the Houston Community College Board – by claiming he was black.
Dave Wilson’s mail drop advertising campaign appeared to insinuate he was black to win over voters in a mainly African-America district from the black incumbent. He lifted images of black people off the internet with the captioned “Please vote for our friend and neighbor Dave Wilson.”
Wilson acknowledges he was deceptive, but says: “Every time a politician talks, he’s out there deceiving voters.”
That’s true. If they know what they’re doing, politicians play to voter prejudices. They use words and images that evoke certain ideas and sensations. They promise they will listen to voters, even though they quite naturally have their own agendas.
I think a couple of factors contributed to Wilson’s win;
- Name recognition – Wilson is described as a political ‘trouble-maker’ and previous candidate. Studies show that if voters recognise a name, but don’t know the person, they assume the recognition must be for positive reasons.
- The incumbent stank – The Houston Community Board has been subject to intense scrutiny and criticism for a series of costly decisions. It is entirely probable that voters knew what they were doing when they elected Wilson to replace politicians they disliked.
- Connection – Wilson’s flyers exude voter-connection. He doesn’t say he’s black, but he signals that he’s sympathetic with a ‘black’ point of view. Voters picked up those cues and consciously chose a candidate who professed empathy. If Wilson misled them, that is on his conscience, and ultimately his chances of re-election
I doubt the story is quite as simple as media is spinning it, even if Wilson is acknowledging some deception. For example, Wilson was ‘outed’ by subsequent flyers produced by the incumbent. It is not credible that voters could believe one set of flyers, but not another.