Before behavior: examining language and emotion in mobilization messages
Sawyer, J. Kanan
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This dissertation seeks to understand the language and emotional appeals that constitute voter mobilization messages, often called get-out-the-vote or GOTV. Much scholarly attention has been given to voter mobilization efforts due to their prominence on the political landscape. These studies focus on the ultimate effect of mobilization: behavior. Yet, because mobilization messages are intended as persuasive rhetorical acts, their language deserves just as much attention as any behavioral outcome. What the present study sought to add to the mobilization research literature was an understanding of the linguistic choices made during mobilization drives. It examined mobilization messages sent out from distinct GOTV campaigns to seven different demographic groups over the course of two years. Analysis of these messages helped reveal several unexpected linguistic patterns. First, mobilization groups did not adapt their messages to the tastes of specific audience groups. Instead, mobilization characteristics emerged which included a balanced emotional tone, a focus on social needs, choice of metaphor as a primary language strategy, and certainty when depicting social and political issues. Further investigation revealed that mobilizers both selected and structured in the same manner four distinct emotional appeal types regardless the audience being addressed. Most surprisingly were the results that showed that mobilization messages contained very few requests for action from the audience. The GOTV efforts that fell outside the bounds of some of the above linguistic and emotional appeals were campaigns targeted toward youth. While youth-oriented campaigns shared the aims of other mobilization groups, the construction of their messages appeared to be shaped by the nature of the relationship between the mobilizer and the audience in a manner distinct from other mobilization campaigns. Each of these findings and their implications for future language-based as well as effects-oriented GOTV studies is detailed in the dissertation, whose primary goal is to shift the scholarly trend of understanding mobilization from a strictly effects-based focus to include a spotlight on language.