“Don’t Boo, Vote”: An Analysis of Political Participation in Response to Insulting Campaign Rhetoric

Parnagian, Melissa [Browse]
Senior thesis


Freeland, Edward P. [Browse]
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs [Browse]
Princeton University. Program in American Studies [Browse]
Class year
Summary note
During the 2016 presidential election, many observers questioned how various identity-based groups would respond to campaign rhetoric that insulted their identity. This thesis investigates if, and how, a candidate’s use of identity-based insults affects the political participation of targets. It asks if individuals increase their participation in response to a candidate’s identity-based insults, and whether the effect of insults is moderated by other factors. Based on the intersection of political and psychological literature, it was hypothesized that identity-based insults do increase targets’ participation. This relationship was thought to be moderated by anger, political efficacy (the belief that one’s actions can produce change in government/politics), and social cost (the belief that identity-based political activities are socially stigmatized). These hypotheses were tested via interviews with Latino, Muslim, and disability advocacy organizations, who were targets of insulting rhetoric in 2016; and via a hypothetical election experiment, which measured participants’ responses to insulting rhetoric. Evidence from these sources suggests that individuals participate more when they are the targets of insulting rhetoric, but mostly in the realm of actualizing political behaviors – That is, behaviors that prioritize personal fulfillment and self-expression, rather than behaviors aimed to support the non-insulting candidate. Of the hypothesized moderators, there was only limited evidence for the role of political efficacy and social cost. However, anger emerged as a significant moderator in the relationship between insults and participation. Experimental data found that anger more consistently moderated the political behavior of insulted individuals who were members of non-marginalized groups. Interview data clarified that an exogenous variable – prior exposure to insulting rhetoric, which makes marginalized groups desensitized to anger – likely masked anger’s effect among marginalized groups. The policy implications of this research are twofold. First, because insulted individuals show a strong tendency to vote against the insulting candidate, they can help elect candidates whose policies are more responsive to particular identity groups. Second, because a candidate’s use of insults depends on his insulation from public pressure, policymakers should consider strategies to increase the influence of the public relative to the influence of wealthy elites. Enforcing current campaign finance laws and re-imagining the public funding program are two viable strategies in the aftermath of Citizens United.

Supplementary Information