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Striking a Responsive Chord: How Political Ads Motivate and Persuade Voters by Appealing to Emotions


  • I am grateful to Dave Campbell, Vic Mendiola, and Gina Petrocelli, for their generous assistance in carrying out the experiments. For helpful comments at various stages, I thank John Aldrich, Steve Ansolabehere, Nancy Burns, Mo Fiorina, Vince Hutchings, Don Kinder, Jon Krosnick, Skip Lupia, George Marcus, Vincent Price, Andy Rudalevige, Nick Valentino, Rob Van Houweling, Sid Verba, the editors and anonymous reviewers, and seminar participants at Duke University, Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and Yale University. Financial support for this project was provided by the National Science Foundation (SBR-9632565), the Department of Government at Harvard University, and The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Ted Brader is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Faculty Associate at the Center for Political Studies, University of Michigan, 426 Thompson Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48106 (


Politicians routinely appeal to the emotions of voters, a practice critics claim subverts the rational decision making on which democratic processes properly rest. But we know little about how emotional appeals actually influence voting behavior. This study demonstrates, for the first time, that political ads can change the way citizens get involved and make choices simply by using images and music to evoke emotions. Prior research suggests voters behave differently in different emotional states but has not established whether politicians can use campaigns to manipulate emotions and thereby cause changes in political behavior. This article uses two experiments conducted during an actual election to show that: (1) cueing enthusiasm motivates participation and activates existing loyalties; and (2) cueing fear stimulates vigilance, increases reliance on contemporary evaluations, and facilitates persuasion. These results suggest campaigns achieve their goals in part by appealing to emotions, and emotional appeals can promote democratically desirable behavior.