13 Dec 2017

Skydeck Live: What Really Motivates American Voters?

Insights from Diane Hessan, who spent a year in conversation with 400 American voters from across the political spectrum


Dan Morrell: Late last summer Diane Hessan (MBA 1977) got a call from the Hillary Clinton campaign. Hessan's an entrepreneur and executive. And she previously founded the market research firm C Space. And the Clinton campaign wanted her to help them get inside the minds of undecided voters in swing states. So Hessan joined the campaign. She kicked off a voter research project that is now extended well beyond the 2016 election. Her approach is qualitative. She's in regular contact with 200 Trump voters and 200 Clinton voters, working to understand their motivations and tracking their reactions to cultural and political events. Her unique insights have made her a regular on CNN and a fixture on the pages of the Boston Globe. And Hessan and I discussed her experience onstage at Spangler Auditorium during this year's fall reunions.


Morrell: Diane, thank you again for being here. We really appreciate it. This is a new way of looking at these undecided voters, who were sort of a black box. What were you seeing early on that was revelatory to you?

Hessan: It was absolutely shocking to me how many people—I think for somebody like me, I could see people not being wild about Hillary Clinton. Maybe she wasn't warm enough. People talked a lot about oh, the only time I really saw her as warm and authentic was that night in New Hampshire in the previous election when it looked like she was going to cry and all of that. I think people had issues with her transparency or whatever.

But there were a significant number of people who had a huge distaste for Donald Trump, but who really believed that Hillary Clinton was the last person in the world you'd want to put in the White House. And I'd really explore this with people. People had long lists going all the way back to Vince Foster and Whitewater and fast forwarding to the Clintons taking furniture out of the White House, and the Benghazi and the emails, and the Clinton Foundation, and Donna Brazile giving questions to the campaign. I mean, they went on and on and on and said this is not normal. This is a pattern of corruption.

And it was shocking to me how much people—ultimately, many people ultimately said, I think I'd rather vote for Donald Trump than for someone like that. It was an interesting reflection of what was going on in the country at the time.

Morrell: What was driving your questions? What were you pulling these prompts from?

Hessan: Most of the time I just was looking at things that were going on in the news. Here's what happened this week. What's your reaction? What about this? What about this?

And in this first phase, because this phase ended at the election, what I'd ask people to do on a weekly basis was to say on a scale of 1 to 10, where are you? If 1 is I'm going to vote for Clinton, the other end of the spectrum is I'm going to vote for Trump, you're somewhere in the middle. Every week people would let me know where they were going and where they were shifting.

And of course, I know some of you have talked to me about this. But the most significant moment in all of that research was the week of September 9th in 2016 in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton saying that she thought that half of Trump voters could be put in what she called a basket of deplorables. And I will tell you, all of these people who are unsure and shifting, there was very, very significant number of people who during that week said that's it. That's it.

You could say that Donald Trump is bullying Miss Universe, is bullying a Gold Star family, is bullying John McCain. But now we have a presidential candidate who is bullying half of the country. And there was a very significant shift. And a bunch of people making decisions in the aftermath of that. So that was probably the big moment.

Morrell: But you have this interesting view because what a lot of the commentators believe is moving the electorate. You have an actual view in the electorate. So are you seeing that that what you are hearing from your select group is different from maybe what the media might be concentrating on?

Hessan: Yeah.

Morrell: Yeah. [LAUGHS]

Hessan: Yeah, it happens all the time. But I will tell you that when Comey came out and said, I'm reopening this investigation, all that, there was almost no movement. Most people—I mean, if you thought that the emails were fine, that this was just the action of a woman who was not technical, in her late 60s or whatever, and she had handled it and everything else, Comey's announcement was like, uh, when are we ever going to get rid of this issue?

And if you thought that she was guilty, it was reinforcing a narrative that you already believed. Where there was movement is within that same time period. And this is where I think maybe the campaign was measuring it.

Within that same time period, there was an announcement that Obamacare rates were going to go through the roof. And the way you'd remember this is, remember he was screaming Arizona rates, up under 112%! Arizona rates are up 112%!

I was thinking about my friend Steve McConnell, who lives in Arizona. I mean, that was an enormous moment for them. I wrote to the campaign. I said, don't even go to Arizona. Don't go because everybody is talking about the increases in those rates.

And I think that Trump literally got the state of Arizona from that rate hike and from just saying it again and again and again. And lots of people shifted and started feeling that Obamacare wasn't working as a result of that. And it came right around the same time as the Comey revelations.

Morrell: You've been doing this work now for quite some time. From your estimation, what political actions can actually change people's minds?

Hessan: So here's what I think. I think that the extremes get the attention. So I—first of all, this is really hard to say. But I am convinced that our country is less divided than we think we are in terms of how we actually feel about the president, how we actually feel about what is going on.

But the people who are on the extremes get the attention. When somebody puts up a Confederate flag and says KKK, neo-Nazi, whatever, that person gets on TV. And someone who is really extreme on the other end will get the same amount of attention.

But my data says that about 65% of the country at the moment is pretty unhappy with Trump. And yet is also just disappointed in the Democratic Party, which they feel is old faces with old ideas. The interesting thing is, though, independent of that, of the 400 voters that I spoke with, what percentage of them would change their vote if they could do it all over again out of the 400 voters? Well, there are three out of the 400 that would change their vote.

But again, this is MBA's. How do you interpret this? That doesn't mean that everybody is divided.

It just means that I think we have this dynamic in which people voted for—many, many people voted for the lesser of two evils for them.

Morrell: How has this project changed you, you and your opinions?

Hessan: Honestly, Daniel, I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. My backyard was the size of this coffee table. I mean, many of us have that background.

And I always thought that was kind of an advantage in my life. I thought it made me a better marketer because I understood the common man, because I came from being in the common man. And I will tell you, it's shocking to me how much I lost touch.

There are unbelievable statistics here. 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Half of Americans save less than $100 a week. 40% of Americans have been in situations in the past couple of months where they literally don't know how they're going to afford their next meal.

People are really, really worried about health care. Those statistics are things that we have to keep in mind. And I don't think that the implication is that we have to open up our checkbooks and write bigger checks.

I don't think the implication is that everybody necessarily has to pay more taxes. But there are a lot of people who have not benefited from the prosperity of our country. And I think to see income inequality and to see what's going on with people's lives, it does change my view of things.

Morrell: Thanks so much, Diane. We'll take some questions now from the audience, and we'll start in the back.

John: Hi, Diane. John—77—first of all, I'd like to say thank you for the observation you made just now about recognizing yourself about losing track of where you come from. I personally felt some really moving and important message for us all. So--

Hessan: Thank you, John.

John: --I thank you. And I think it's probably got a wider audience for that. And then just on your selection of the sample for the second group, is that a totally random group? Or what does it represent? Or are the extremes in there? How did you go about doing that, and what does that group bring?

Hessan: The sample is pretty random. And I have every state. I have every age. I have an even number of conservatives, liberals, people in the middle.

I have pretty good mix racially, in terms of sexual preference, all that. I will tell you that I'm doing a new project now with a group of interns in Boston. I didn't think I had enough people under the age of 30.

And I'm really, really interested in the next generation—how they think about politics. I went to Tufts Undergrad, which of course my section mates there all know. And at Tufts, they've done some really fascinating research, which basically says that 50% of millennials didn't vote. That in the 2012 election in Massachusetts when it was Barack Obama versus Mitt Romney, and when it was Elizabeth Warren versus Scott Brown. So you look at those elections, you think that everybody would vote. Something like 28% of college students voted in that election.

So voter engagement on the part of people under 30 is terrible. And you ask basic questions like why don't you vote? And they would say things like, well, nobody asks me to.

I mean, it's just unbelievable. So with a group of interns, I'm going to create a whole additional group of 400 millennials across all states. And I'll mush them in with the 400 from time to time.

But I just want to understand what's going on for all these people. So we just did it. Most of these interns are Democrat.

So I said, look, as part of your training session we're going to get a Trump voter on the phone. And you're going to learn how you talk to that person. Because you can't say to somebody, well, wait a minute, though—don't you think he's kind of racist? I mean, you you have to say what's going on? How do you think there's a way to do this kind of research?

So we got this kid on the phone, who's a sophomore at University of Maryland, who loves Donald Trump. And I interviewed him for 45 minutes as all of these interns are writing it down. It was really interesting.

At the end, the woman who was sitting next to me, who is a senior at Harvard, I said well, what did you think? And she said, I've got to tell you. I'm shocked. I could like—oh, before the interview, she said she knows no Trump voters, none. She's never met one.

This is like, she's about to meet somebody from another planet. So I finished doing the interview on the phone. And she says I've got to tell you, I could totally be friends with him, which was a really poignant moment for me to have somebody say that.

Morrell: Right over here.

Joe: Joe—HBS, 77. I'm going to ask you to project forward a couple of years. And the Democratic Party calls you and says you've done a lot of research.

Hessan: Well, I'm just starting to explore that with voters—what do the Democrats really need to do? I wrote an op Ed about this. And essentially, I think there are a few things.

Number one, the Democrats need to know that in the eyes of Trump voters, Donald Trump is crushing it. You go to his website. There's a list of 59 things that he has done.

The economy is better. Stock market is better. The unemployment rate is down. The borders are more secure.

ISIS looks more vulnerable. We have a phenomenal Supreme Court Justice. I mean, I can go on and on and on. And Congress, including the Republicans are in that guy's way. And nobody is going to give him—they're not going to give him any benefit of the doubt.

So I do think that step one is not saying, well, wait a minute, let's get all of the nonracist, non-bigoted, normal people in the country to just vote more and we'll be fine. I don't think it's about that. I think it's understanding your enemy.

The second thing, Joe, is people now believe that the primary message coming out of the Democratic Party is resist. But just resistance alone doesn't do it. People want fresh, innovative thinking, new ideas from probably people who are new leaders.

I mean, I suggested a message. I don't think I've really done enough research on this. But I think—what I said is I think what voters need is they want a new—they want the American dream back. You ask people if their children's lives are going to be better than theirs, and most people will hesitate and say I don't know. I'm not sure.

And a lot of people in the middle part of the country say very quickly no. There's not a great sense of optimism about the future. And I think that's what people are looking for.

Morrell: So Diane graciously offered to put a question to her group of voters for us for this event. And the question is about the intersection of business and politics. And Diane, I'll let you talk about what that question was.

Hessan: Yes, so I asked people a couple of different things. The first thing I said was given that we now have a businessman, who is president. And remember, probably at least 50 people stop there and said he's not a businessman. He's a fake.

But I asked that question anyway. What do you think a business—what would you expect in the presidency, a business person, to be really good at and not good at? And so the number one responses were super predictable. So what's a business person going to be good at? Working through the economy, managing the economy.

And what are they not going to be good at? Policy and understanding kind of how the democratic process works. The number two answer on what they would be good at is getting stuff done. The number two answer on what they're not good at is, they wouldn't be good at compassion, empathy, and understanding other people.

I think that's kind of sad. And and by the way, the number three on what they wouldn't be good at is foreign policy, which I actually thought was also really interesting. What do you think about that?

Number one, I always think that this is a sad state of affairs when we business people have a reputation for being really good at the hard core stuff and not great at the soft stuff. I also think it says that we should all be aware of the fact that Donald Trump has had a significant impact on the brand of what a business person is, in that, we need to be aware of that. That doesn't mean people like us more or don't like us more. But if you say you're in business, all of the good and bad that comes with what we're seeing from our leadership now is a part of that.

The second thing I asked is what would you like business people to do? What do you wish business people would do more? This was not really surprising.

I mean, people want—people are really, really interested in business doing more than paying attention to their bottom line. And this cut across the entire political spectrum. And that kind of stuff is—they're interested in business being more innovative, et cetera.

One of the most surprising things to me is I said to everybody name a business person that you—not the president—name a business person that you really admire. I will tell you, it was a very short list. I was shocked.

So there are the person—OK, so who do you think got the most mentions?

Elon Musk for how innovative he is. Across the board. This really does not discriminate by who voters were.

Number two was Warren Buffett. I will tell you, after that, it was shocking. They could barely come up with somebody. Jeff Bezos got one vote. Tim Cook got one vote. A lot of one offs.

People were saying things like Jack Welch, Bernie Marcus. I'm like, wait a minute. I'm talking about somebody who's in business.

Today, it was a really short list. Lots of people said can't think of anybody. There were a bunch of people who would say things like, well, my brother-in-law who runs a clothing store downtown or whatever. I really respect that kind of person.

But it was a really short list. People who are not in business, they don't read about business. They don't have those same kinds of people.

Steve Jobs was mentioned once. But I put Steve Jobs in the category of Jack Welch and Bernie Marcus, not running a major company anymore. So that's my business report now from the front lines.

Morrell: Diane, thank you so much for doing this today. I really appreciated it. And thank you all for being here as well. I really appreciate it. Thanks.

Skydeck is produced by the External Relations department at Harvard Business School and edited by Craig McDonald. It is available at iTunes or wherever you get your favorite podcasts. For more information or to find archived episodes, visit alumni.hbs.edu/skydeck.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1977, Section I
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