Social capital is dominant in campaigns, with two recent examples in the last week.
An interesting Op-Ed in the NYT by Mark Mellman and Michael Bloomfield, “Loose Lips Win Elections” (1/6/08) discussed fact that Huckabee’s victory over Mitt Romney last week in the Iowa Caucuses demonstrated that conversations (social capital) are more effective than advertising in getting individuals elected. Mellman and Bloomfield noted that Romney outspent Huckabee on advertising by a 6:1 ratio, but Huckabee’s campaign motivated lots of more efficacious parishioner-to-parishioner conversations through church networks urging fellow congregants to vote for Huckabee.
And “Why Iowa? Sociologist says it’s groupthink ; Voters elsewhere play follow the leader” (Jonathan Tilove, Times-Pacyune, 1/5/08) notes that Obama’s bounce post Iowa exhibits a social dimension. The press post-Iowa tell a revisionist story that makes Barack seem like the invincible and wise candidate, and then, assuming he wins NH (and the polls now show Obama with a recent double digit lead over Hillary Clinton), this story becomes all the more compelling and believable. “Why? Because ultimately, for all the talk about voting being a private act, it is in fact a social act in which individual behavior is hugely dependent on the thinking and actions of others….Duncan Watts, a Columbia University sociologist and principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research, has studied the phenomenon. As he explains, sooner or later in the primary process voters find themselves thinking less and responding to the cues of others more, under the assumption that ‘all these other people can’t be wrong.’…”
This social cascade overwhelms individual judgment and consideration. And history shows that the candidate that has won NH and Iowa, while they may not have won the general election, have never failed to win their party’s nomination.
That’s one reason why the NYT and others have been calling for a regional primary where the first states in a region would be rotated so that Iowa and NH don’t take on this disproportionate influence.
Watts and colleagues have documented something I wrote about earlier (viral popularity). They showed in a 2006 study in Science that “early deciders — like voters in Iowa and New Hampshire — have a profound power to get the snowball rolling” and hence influence later voters. “Watts and his colleagues created a music Web site and asked 14,000 participants to listen to a series of songs and rate them. Some were asked to rate without knowing others’ picks, while the rest were divided into discrete groups in which they knew the choices being made by others in their group. The groups that knew about other members’ ratings came up with different choices, and in each the most popular songs were rated much higher overall because ratings were influenced by members who had chosen earlier.” Part of this result, as was seen in Huckabee’s Iowa vote is the results of a huge number of cascading conversations, where every NH conversation in a book group, or PTA meeting, or Rotary group starts to change some voters in favor of the Iowa victor (in this case Obama), and the power of that influence is magnified over the days.