Essentially, we are biased to the first piece of information we receive, placing more value on it than subsequent information. This initial data point acts as the ‘anchor’ from which all other information is weighed and judged, and ultimately it impacts the final decision. We do this all the time. Think about what you would pay for a bottle of wine, a T-shirt, a gallon of milk, etc. You have established a reference price for these products based on past experiences, and you are now anchored to them. It can be an effective decision-making tool. If a gallon of milk cost $1 or $10 you would think something is up. Retailers know this as well. When a product goes on sale, why don’t they remove the old price and just show the new one? Because they know consumers like to see “Was $20 – Now only 10!” If we are anchored to the larger price, the smaller price conveys that we are gaining more value in the exchange.
How does this apply to early voting? A recent The Daily podcast entitled “The Shadow of the 2000 Election,” talked about that infamous election was shaped by Gore conceding when the results were still in question. From thereafter, it was a Bush victory with Gore contesting the results; instead of an undecided election with both candidates calling for a recount. In the collective mind of the country—and propagated by the media—America had chosen a president, and now Gore seemed like a sore loser. This perception was shaped by Bush being anchored as the winner in the minds of US citizens. This made any efforts from Gore incredibly challenging because he was playing from behind. Our initial impression of the electoral results had been made, and it was incredibly challenging to overcome.
In my sales class, we discuss the importance of first impressions. When we encounter a new person, we have somewhere between 3 and 30 seconds to make our first impression. Every interaction afterward moves our assessment from that starting point—that anchor. That is why they are so important. If you begin a job interview my mispronouncing the name of the company, you have an uphill battle to gain any sort of credibility. If on your first date, you beep from your car and s/he runs through the rain to get in, you also have set the bar quite low. In both cases, you have anchored yourself low on the continuum of ‘good employee’ or ‘good date’ and have to move from low to high. You have also created a ‘halo effect’, where the interviewer or your date will make assumptions about other aspects of your character based on that snap judgment. Imagine instead that you start the job interview by correctly pronouncing the company name and a few specific, hard-to-find facts that made you want to apply. Or if you rang the doorbell, escorted your date under an umbrella, and opened the car door. Here you dropped anchor at a much more favorable place on the continuum. The same halo effect will occur, only this time it works to your advantage. The employer may assume your preparation means you are also a critical-thinker. Your date may translate your courtesy to integrity. And given the confirmation bias (another blog), both parties may look for ways to affirm those positive [or negative] attributes to keep you close to the initial anchored perception.
Back to early voting and the 2020 election. As of this writing, over 66 million early votes have been cast, which points to record levels of voter turnout. This is important because when the first projections are released, we will have our reference point for the rest of the election. We will be anchored to the initial leader, making subsequent judgments from that first impression. If you are thinking that this shouldn’t matter, you are correct. Votes are tangible, simply count them up and don’t worry about perceptions. But it very well might matter for two reasons. First, President Trump has made it clear that he is willing to do anything to throw this election into turmoil. As Petyr Baelish says in Game of Thrones, “Chaos is a ladder,” and Trump embodies this idea (e.g., his Coronavirus response). The closer the initial results, the easier to poke holes in them. absentee ballots, voter fraud (, etc. The wider the margin, the harder it becomes to challenge the results. At some point, even the most narcissistic person must come to grips with the will of the people. This first impression, then, has the ability to give momentum to either campaign.
Secondly, while there is no evidence that voter fraud is even a thing, the term has somehow gained a foothold in the American vernacular (again, stemming from the 2000 election). This is important because this election will be—and to some degree, already has been—decided by courts and the legal system. Make no mistake, Trump’s best prospect at re-election is through litigation, and once again, perception matters. Trump has challenged voting by mail, drop boxes, absentee ballots; he has added restrictions to disproportionately impact minority communities; he has sued states for allowing votes to be counted after certain days; he has sued governors to stop expanded mail-in voting; he has appointed countless judges to do his work for him (e.g., a New Jersey judge decided to ‘throw away’ 50,000 ballots—which is a big deal considering Trump won 2016 by 77,000 votes). The goal of all of these actions is to reduce the number of presumed votes for Biden. Plain and simple. The best way to counteract is to be so overwhelmingly ahead, that even the courts cannot come to the rescue.
In normal times, we would all sit back and think about how crazy it is that the President of the United States is actively trying to limit the ability of its citizens to vote. Somehow in 2020, that is a given, and so we have to instead think of ways to overcome this dictatorship-adjacent move. That is why early voting matters. The more we can anchor the perception of a Biden win in the minds of the citizens, the harder it will be—even using purposefully deceitful tactics—to move the anchor. Regardless of the initial results, the Trump administration will challenge the methods, the media, the poll workers, governors, state laws, ballots, even voter intentions, so we should try to make it as wide a gap as possible to overcome. The heavier the anchor, the harder it is to move.
Colin Gabler is a writer at heart.