Election Day Redux

In a follow-up to Tuesday’s post, the results are in, and Mayor Lisa Wong of Fitchburg, MA was elected to a third term, defeating Joseph Solomito with 56% of the vote. Not at all what I predicted, but I think it makes the full chronology quite compelling. Here we see, in September, an outpouring of support for one candidate, who then is beaten soundly on Election Day. How does this make any sense?

But let’s look a little closer at what the two candidates were running on. There’s a sense in which we want to be drawn to our leaders, for them to be magnetic in a visceral way. Social psychologists have ample evidence that we are more likely to select as a leader someone who is more attractive, has a more authoritative voice, or has mannerisms that indicate dominance. These characteristics convince us that an individual will make the right decisions, and will be able to convince others to agree with them. This last part is important, because any policy decision must be embraced by everyone. On the other hand, we have an antenna for good decisions. We want someone who will make decisions we agree with, and decisions that we think will be good for our community. The hope is that the two come hand-in-hand, but they might not.

Municipal politics are a wonderful forum for looking at this balance because geographically local leaders emerge from their own populace. They are connected with the community, and know a sizable percentage of the local residents. For example, Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston has purportedly shaken the hand of over 50% of the city’s residents. Admittedly, he is on the extreme end of this scale, but that that is even possible (compare that to the percentage of Americans Obama knows), says volumes about how closely connected the mayor of a small city could be to his or her constituents. Through common friends and acquaintances, the mayor could easily be just a few degrees from nearly the entire city. This leader might be chosen in an almost personal way, rather than the more institutional, distant feeling of national politics. Thus, the mannerisms and appearances of candidates in day-to-day life can impact a vote as much as how they carry themselves in official capacities.

The case of Mayor Wong vs. Councilman Solomito provides an example of when the leader who has emerged from the population itself is not the person with the best plan for the community. Councilman Solomito has probably conducted business with the other influential businessmen and women, and been a fixture of the courts for years, consistently mentioned in the local newspaper, and a household name. He is truly of Fitchburg, and one of a network that reflects the institutions of the community. His success in the primary means that the people who were more attracted to this set of credentials were out in droves.

On the other hand, Mayor Wong is articulate as a speaker, motivating as a role model, and has shown that she has an effective vision for managing the city’s important decisions. This vision seems, by comparison, superior to that Solomito and his colleagues implemented for the previous thirty years. In this case, the majority of the voting populace in Fitchburg, MA preferred Wong.


About Dan

Daniel Tumminelli O’Brien, PhD, is the Project Manager of the Harvard Boston Research Initiative at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor at Binghamton University where he has been a key player in the development of the Binghamton Neighborhood Project. Both projects bring together academic and city agencies in the development of innovative solutions for the everyday challenges of urban life. Amidst these efforts, his own research focuses on urban social behavior. As an educator, he has concentrated on pedagogical techniques that bring evolutionary theory to classrooms outside the biological sciences.
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