This week, the Virginia Senate race really heated up (article). The Republican incumbent George Allen read a passage from a novel written by Democratic challenger James Webb about 30 years ago. The novels are historical and based on experiences that Webb had as a journalist in Bangkok. But the scenes in question are very sexually explicit and I can see how they would offend the conservative voter.
But what I want to blog about today is Webb's response. I think he did it exactly the wrong way. From a Human Factors point of view, what Allen did was create connections in voters' minds from Webb to sexually explicit scenes. Anyone against explicitness will have connections to negative affect from this. And no one will really have positive connections, because while many people are in favor of free speech, no one is really in favor of explicitness in itself.
But Webb's response just magnified this. He talked about how legitimate these scenes are because they come from his real experiences. But all this does is create salient repetition in voters' minds from Webb to the sexual explicitness. For those who are offended, his logic wouldn't sway them at all, and may make it worse. And for those who aren't offended, it strengthens connections that have no effect. Either way, he doesn't accomplish anything positive for his campaign.
What he should have done is create brand new connections that would appeal to different kinds of voters while ignoring the specifics of the explicit scenes. For example he could have said something like:
"This is clearly a desperate attempt by my opponent to bring up 30-year old news that has nothing to do with the real issues of this Senate race. I am sure that the citizens of the great state of Virginia can see through this ploy and will vote based on the issues on November 7th."
By avoiding any mention of the sex, he avoids strengthening these connections. And he creates several beneficial connections of his own: That Allen is desperate, that he has a high opinion of Virginia voters' intelligence, that the novel is from many years ago, and that it is irrelevant (whether it really is or not).
Whoever advised Webb on his response needs to study his/her human factors.