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System 1 Politics: The Rise and Fall of Donald Trump

Our System1 Politics election experiment is almost over. We have been tracking the US election without asking a single voting intention question, instead measuring the deep “System 1” heuristics that humans use to make decisions:



Editor’s Note: GreenBook has no position on the U.S. Presidential Race. As Editor, I’ve chosen to showcase the System1 Politics experiment by BrainJuicer because I believe it is relevant, interesting, and perhaps even disruptive to traditional political and social research. With that in mind, I asked Tom Ewing to do a deep dive into what their 3Fs model says about Clinton and Trump individually as we also report the results of the tracking study leading up to the election. We’ll publish the post about Trump in about a week or so.

We’ll know how well the application of behavioral economics models can predict political outcomes in just a few weeks, and of course this will likely be a major topic at our IIeX Behavioral Science Forums event in Chicago on November 14-15. 


By Tom Ewing

Our System1 Politics experiment uses three key decision-making shortcuts – Fame, Feeling, and Fluency – to anticipate the outcome of the US Presidential election. The 3 Fs are the heuristics that underpin consumer decisions from buying to voting.

Fame: how quickly does a choice come to mind? Feeling: how good do I feel about it? And Fluency: how easy is it to recognize (and process)?

Sometimes the various choices open to people are quite stark. In the Republican Primary race, for instance, Donald Trump was clearly and obviously ahead on all three fundamentals. There was never any chance of Rubio, Cruz, Bush or the rest catching him. But the presidential election is not like that. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both have particular advantages. But these advantages are also potentially fragile. From our very first wave, in January, we’ve been saying the election was going to be extremely close, and the polls right now are bearing this out.

We’ll have to wait until November 8th to find out how predictive the System1 Politics methods are. But they’re also designed to work diagnostically – to dig into what’s driving the emotions behind each candidate, and what distinctive assets they can call on.

With that in mind, Greenbook asked us to write two special posts, each one exploring the System 1 strengths and weaknesses of a candidate. First, Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton.





For several weekly waves of data, our Fame, Feeling and Fluency model has shown Hillary Clinton in a dead heat with Donald Trump – it’s only in the latest wave that she’s re-established a narrow lead. If she does win in November, it’ll be down to these three key factors, in order of importance.

  1. THE FEEL-OK FACTOR: Most people don’t like Hillary Clinton very much. If she was up against a candidate people did like, she’d probably be doomed. But when we ask how people feel about each candidate, Clinton holds a consistent advantage over Trump. In the last few weeks of data, we’ve seen the proportion of people feeling happy about each candidate rise. Around 3 in 10 Americans now feel Happy about Trump – it has been as low as 17%, so these are strong figures for him. Clinton has hit lows too – 21% Happiness is her bottom end. But she’s currently scoring 40% Happiness, comfortably the highest we’ve seen for her. Why the improvement? As the election nears, people harden in their choices – and they’re wanting to feel good about their candidate, not simply neutral. If Clinton can maintain a strong Feeling gap over her rival, her chances will be far better.
  2. EXPERIENCE AND KNOWLEDGE: What about Clinton makes people happy? The qualities our respondents point to tend to be ones that don’t have much to do with her personality. It’s Clinton’s experience in government and knowledge of politics and international affairs that they like. “Knows the international arena”; “Has dedicated her entire life to service”; “The most qualified for the job”. Also often mentioned – Clinton’s work ethic and her caring side, working for women and families. But it’s the experience issue that shines through – and seems perfectly calibrated to play against Trump’s negatives of arrogance and ignorance. (Though as we’ll see when we look at Trump, his positives fit her negatives just as well.) The question is – will experience matter? We think it all depends on how much the election becomes about fear. Fearful people often default to caution and the status quo – which in this case is Hillary Clinton, and may explain why her support seems to jump every time Trump gets close to her in the polls.
  3. THE TRAPPINGS OF OFFICE: Clinton’s third advantage is closely related to her second. She doesn’t have a lot of distinctive assets, as we’ll see, but what she does have is a stronger association with the trappings of office: the White House, the presidential seal, the oval office. Obviously, you might think – she’s lived in the White House and worked in government! But when we asked about Joe Biden, the sitting Vice President, his associations were far less strong. On a basic associative level, Clinton feels more ‘presidential’ – and in the voting booth, that might just be enough to sway last-minute deciders.


Clinton has a narrow lead in the polls and in our Fame-Feeling-Fluency model, but Trump has overtaken her before and might do again. What three factors weaken Clinton as a candidate?

  1. CROOKED HILLARY: People who like Hillary Clinton express a bunch of reasons for it. People who dislike her tend to have just one. They think she’s a liar, and often corrupt too. It’s hard to overstate how often this comes up in our verbatims: “Lying criminal”; “Corrupt liar”; “No integrity”; “Liar, liar, liar”. Sometimes they mention reasons, mostly related to her private email server, but often the accusation stands by itself. These negatives certainly contribute to polarization, but they haven’t stopped her Feeling steadily rising. Their effect on the vote may be to steel the resolve of wavering Trump supporters and help his turnout rise.
  2. FAME, FEELING, AND WHAT?: Fluency is one of the drivers of rapid, System 1 decisions. How quickly you recognize a brand (via its unique assets) and process a choice makes a huge difference. Clinton has lagged behind Trump on Fluency until very recently. Now they are almost level. But not because her Fluency has risen – his has slipped back. Hillary is still simply not seen as a distinctive politician – she’s “politics as usual”, as one respondent put it in the verbatims. If Trump can get his mojo back and recover some Fluency, we’d say she’s in trouble.
  3. WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?: Back in January we predicted the debates would be good for Donald Trump. We’ll see very soon if we were right, but our reasoning remains the same. In terms of rapid System 1 associations, Trump “owns” a lot of the slogans and concepts that have defined the campaign, from immigration to “Make America Great Again”. During the Primary Season, we noticed that almost every slogan – even Democratic ones, like Bernie Sanders’ “A Political Revolution Is Coming”, was credited to Donald Trump. As for Clinton, her grasp of detail is famous, but she doesn’t have the same level of distinctive assets she can lodge in a nationwide audience’s mind. Our studies showed she owned gun control as a policy – powerful but highly controversial – and performs fairly well on the typical Democrat areas of health and education. Beyond that, her distinctive assets are limited: to seize the initiative firmly in front of millions of Americans, she needs something simpler and stronger.

We update our study every week on – the next wave is timed for a little later than usual, to take the first debate into account.

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One response to “System 1 Politics: The Rise and Fall of Donald Trump

  1. There is certainly much to be agreed with in this post and from most standpoints there is a great deal of logic delivered here. The thing about voters though, is that they are not logical. I think the point about single messaging is key to Trump’s ability to stay competitive but to date that has been about the negatives of Hillary and the negatives of almost everybody who isn’t him. When people begin to make choices, they make them on positives, not negatives.

    Trump, no doubt has a media presence driven from years of television and what people like is that he is decisive and gives all appearances of being an individual who plows through obstacles toward his goals. He is the epitome of the tactical win; the one who dies with the most toys wins, while Hillary is a process person and doesn’t attract a following because no one really knows what she is doing. It provides a window of opportunity to question everything from her motives to her abilities.

    The debates will no doubt highlight the differences in style, but more importantly, they will highlight the planning behind the platforms. Sometimes decisions have to be made very quickly and its important to understand the consequence of actions from more than one perspective.Governing is not a job that requires consensus and to do that you have to understand the players.

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