Skip to content
Guest Thinkers

Expect McCain to “Prime” the Russian Bear

Rewind 1992: Bush’s public approval shifted as the public turned its attention from war to the economy.

As tensions with a newly aggressive Russia escalate, the return of America’s Cold War enemy heavily favors McCain’s election chances. Here’s the reason: The issues that are most salient in voters minds are often the issues by which they are most likely to judge candidates. Political psychologists call this process “priming.” The classic example of this priming effect at work was George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings during the later half of his presidency (graph above, studies). During the first Gulf War with national security as the salient issue, President Bush was evaluated chiefly based on these terms. Yet as soon as the war was over, media attention turned sharply to focus on the faltering economy, and as this issue took precedent in voters’ minds, his approval ratings plummeted.

In 2008, given their respective backgrounds, if the economy remains the overwhelmingly dominant issue, then the interpretative playing field favors Obama. If national security becomes salient, then things shift strongly in favor of McCain. Yet it gets potentially even more one-sided for McCain. The Arizona Senator has even figured out a way to turn the saliency of the economy in his favor, successfully redefining the economy as about gas prices (solution=drilling) rather than housing foreclosures, jobs, and the credit crisis.

On the McCain front, expect themes of strength and experience to pick up in his television ads and campaign rhetoric, with the campaign likely pulling off the shelf battle tested Cold War metaphors.

Indeed these strategies helped propel both the candidacy of Ronald Reagan as well as that of George W. Bush in 2004. See below the now classic advertisement from 1984 using the metaphor of a “bear in the woods” to emphasize with voters the need for a strong leader to take on the Soviet Union. Also see a similar strategy used in the second ad below from 2004, with the metaphor of “wolves in the woods” used to signify the need for a strong leader in the face of a terrorist threat.


Up Next