Motivation in presidential candidates

On the eve of the Wisconsin primary, Rick Santorum is vowing to press on regardless. He is framing this as being true to a cause larger than himself, a battle for the heart and soul of the GOP. But motivational psychology suggests a different explanation (READ ON AFTER THE JUMP):

One central strain of motivational psychology that is most closely associated with the names of McClelland and Atkinson holds that the motives underlying our behavior are not subject to rational control or even understanding. The three main motive clusters – power motivation, achievement motivation, and affiliation motivation -operate “under our radar”; they can be congruent with the goals and ideals that we express on a cognitive level, but they also can be at odds with these. Such discrepancies are keenly felt by people – for example, someone driven by achievement motivation may initially jump at the chance of promotion but wind up being unhappy in a leadership position because he or she does not really relish the power and control aspects of that function.

Winter (1982) researched the motivation of presidential candidates and made an interesting observation: those driven primarily by achievement motivation tended to terminate their campaigns when it became apparent they were not going to win.However, those primarily driven by a power motive derived sufficient enjoyment from the process and trappings of running for office (the speeches to adoring crowds, being in the media spotlight, the fame of being on the national stage) that they stayed in the race far beyond the point where it remained reasonable to expect a positive outcome. On a side note, everyone has a mix of the primary motives – but we may safely assume that the power motive plays a large part in politicians’ motivational makeup.

Still, at similar points in recent races, losing candidates as a rule bowed out; Mitt Romney did in 2008. At this point in this year’s race, there is no reasonable expectation that Rick Santorum can win the GOP nomination, especially if, as expected, he loses in Wisconsin and the other Apr. 3 contests. While his mouth may be saying he’s in the race for the greater good, his gut may be telling him to stay in because he loves being in the spotlight, because he relishes the attention afforded a potential presidential nominee. Perhaps it is time for him to listen to his head and reconsider whether staying in the race is not actually damaging to the cause he professes to hold dear.

Winter, D.G. (1982): Motivation and Performance in presidential candidates. In A.J. Steward (Ed.),
Motivation and society
(pp. 244 – 273). San Francisco,: Jossey, Bass.

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