The Priming Effect in Political Campaigns

The psychological effect of priming may decide our next President. With little public awareness, this psychological tool of implanting an idea via implicit visual or verbal device is used extensively in political campaigns. The effect of priming is long-lasting and salient, and is surprisingly at least as influential on voters as conscious recognition memory.

Politicians use priming to shape the criteria by which their audiences evaluate them. All politicians have strengths and weaknesses, and they want voters to focus on their strengths. One way to do this is to repetitively mention those very strengths to the audience via speeches and media. For example, if a politician’s economic policy is popular, the candidate can repeatedly mention the economy to establish a positive link between “Candidate X” and “economic policy” in the minds of voters. Then, whenever the topic of the economy is brought up, voters will unconsciously be reminded of “Candidate X.” The key here is that they will evaluate the overall political performance of “Candidate X” based mostly on the aspect they are primed with: the economy. Since the link between “Candidate X” and “economic policy” is positive, voters will look upon the candidate with favor. In other words, by priming voters, a candidate is able to establish a specific criterion for the voters, a reference point by which the voters evaluate his overall performance.

It is important not to confuse priming solely with the intuitive belief that candidates should promote their strengths to voters. With priming, candidates only need to repeat the name of the issue rather than give nuanced information.

A good example of a positive association formed by priming is the presidential race of 2004 between George W. Bush and John Kerry. Throughout the campaign Bush continuously mentioned the issue of terrorism. Primed voters were then more likely to associate Bush with fighting terrorism. Since the Republican Party, which Bush represents, is traditionally believed to be a reliable force against terrorism, he was associated with not only terrorism itself but also “adequate ability in dealing with terrorism.”

Terrorism came to overshadow other issues and thus became the sole issue by which many voters evaluated Bush. Priming is used not only to promote a candidate’s strengths, but also to highlight opponents’ weaknesses. An example of a negative association formed by the priming effect is the 1875 Ohio gubernatorial election in which contending Republican nominee Rutherford Hayes (who won the election and later went on to win the presidential race) primed the Geghan Bill to voters. The Geghan Bill, endorsed by the Democrats, allowed Catholic service in Ohio’s asylums and prisons. Hayes’ exaggerated anti-Catholic scheme, repeated many times to the voters, was meant to overshadow the Republican’s anti-gold standard measure that was widely unpopular among voters. By merely bring up the issue in many debates, the Republicans succeeded in priming a negative attitude towards Democrats.

Of course, the priming effect does not necessarily come only from participating politicians. During Jimmy Carter’s time as president, the media predominantly covered foreign events, such as the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty or the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Voters were primed with foreign policy, and subsequent surveys show that in general, people evaluated the overall performance of President Carter based mostly on his performance in foreign affairs. While Carter saw some success with his foreign policy, this priming hurt him during his reelection campaign, which occurred during the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

Priming can be used to either help or hurt a politician, but voters should be aware that primed association is not the same as reasoned voting. In fact, prime association often leads to biased voting. It is the voter’s responsibility to know the politician’s stance on a wide range of issues, and not just on the one that he or she talks about consistently during the campaign.


Linh Nguyen is a freshman in Silliman College.