“Aqua Buddha”: Will it matter?

The big news last week in the Kentucky Senate campaign was about this:

Republican U.S. Senate nominee Rand Paul denied on Tuesday trying to kidnap a woman and force her to use illegal drugs while attending Baylor University in the early 1980s. The denial came a day after GQ published on its Web site an anonymous woman’s allegation that Paul and a classmate blindfolded and tied her up, took her to their apartment, tried to force her to use marijuana and made her bow down to a god known as “Aqua Buddha.” (http://bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com/2010/08/10/paul-calls-allegations-in-gq-story-outrageous-and-ridiculous/) More is available here: http://bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com/2010/08/10/rand-paul-news-links-the-aftermath-of-gqs-story/

The woman has since indicated that she was not kidnapped, but that the incident was more of a “hazing.”

Questions about Rand Paul’s antics during his college days aside, I’m more interested in what effect it might have on his senatorial campaign and his chances of getting elected in this fall. Essentially, when Kentucky voters go to the polls in November, are they going to care about the “Aqua Buddha” incident when choosing their next U.S. Senator?

Political psychologists have examined two primary ways that voters make their voting decisions: online and memory-based. The memory-based model says that a voter goes into the voting booth and 1) recalls everything that he/she can from the campaign about both candidates, 2) assigns a “positive” or “negative” value to each of these memories, 3) adds all these values up, and 4) sees which candidate has the more positive “score” and then votes for that candidate. The online model, on the other hand, says that voters carry a “running tally” in their heads throughout a campaign, which is a general “positive/negative” attitude toward the candidate. Whenever they see something in the news or learn something about a candidate, they update the running tally to be more positive or more negative, based on how they felt about the new piece of information that they were exposed to. Then when they go into the voting booth, they don’t think of all the events in the campaign, but rather simply recall the tally and see if it’s more positive or negative. If positive, they vote for the person, if not, they vote against.

Most research has provided evidence in favor of the online model. This is because most voters have a very difficult time remembering specific events in a political campaign. In fact, one research study found that by the time voters go into the voting booth, they’ve forgotten the details of just about the entire campaign! But voters do remember whether or not they developed a more positive or negative attitude toward a particular candidate, even if they can’t remember the exact campaign events that led to that impression.

Based on this research, I would argue that the “Aqua Buddha incident” will likely have little effect on the ultimate outcome of this senatorial race. Those who are already likely to vote for Paul will probably dismiss the incident, and if anything will update their running tallies to be more positive in response to what they perceive as a typical liberal bias in the mainstream media. Those likely to vote for Conway will simply strengthen their already-negative running tally of Rand Paul, judging the event to be just another example of his extremism and unfitness for political office. For those in the middle, it might move the needle a little ways in the negative direction, but likely not by much in the bigger scheme of all the events in the campaign, especially compared to other issues that are important to Kentucky voters like coal mine regulations, poverty, and Eastern Kentucky’s drug problem.

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