Relying on Old Glory to turn Colorado Red

The Colorado Statesman

If you’re stuck in traffic on the way to a polling place in November — or even sitting bumper-to-bumper on your way home to cast a mail ballot for the fall election — don’t be surprised if you inexplicably start voting for Republican candidates, even if you’ve favored Democrats all your life. It’s all according to a Douglas County GOP activist’s plan.

Between now and the election, Castle Pines resident Crista Huff plans to distribute as many as 20,000 American flag bumper stickers — she’s already handed out more than 7,500 of them — in an attempt to exert “subliminal seduction” on Colorado voters and swing the state’s electoral votes toward Republican Mitt Romney.

Crista Huff displays American flag bumper stickers as part of an effort to exert “subliminal seduction” to vote Republican.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

She’s basing her plan on an academic paper published a year ago purporting to show that voters who see an American flag, even in just a brief glance, are more likely to vote Republican.

“I saw you could switch people’s votes to Republican, and since we are a Purple state, I figured, let’s give this a try in Colorado,” Huff says. “How can we get the flags in front of people? Then I realized, if we got the flags on cars, everyone driving behind us would be viewing the image of the American flag, and some of those people would switch their votes to Republican, and maybe that would be enough to switch a Purple state to go Red.”

Huff is so convinced of the possibility that she’s cashed out a chunk of her retirement account to fund her own Super PAC — a 527 organization dubbed The American Flag Project — and aims to put flags in front of as many voters as she can.

“The idea seems a little far-fetched,” she says, “but they studied people, they did follow-up.”

Here’s how the study’s authors — Travis J. Carter of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Melissa J. Ferguson of Cornell University and Ran R. Hassin of Hebrew University — put it in perspective. “We report that a brief exposure to the American flag led to a shift toward Republican beliefs, attitudes, and voting behavior among both Republican and Democratic participants, despite their overwhelming belief that exposure to the flag would not influence their behavior.”

In the two-year experiment, the academics showed some of their research subjects an American flag while making sure a control group wasn’t exposed to the Stars and Stripes before having them fill out a survey about their political views. Those exposed to a “small American flag” on the paperwork exhibited a “significant and robust changes in participants’ voting intentions, voting behavior, and political attitudes, all in the politically conservative direction,” the study’s authors concluded.

Huff says the response to her project has been overwhelming.

“When I am out in public and take a handful of the bumper stickers, people start reaching for them before they even realize why I have the flags in my hand,” she says. “People are craving patriotism, they realize we’re probably going to lose the Republic, for instance, if Barack Obama gets reelected. People understand that. They want the flags, and when you tell them the flag could help beat Obama, right away they say, ‘Can I have one for my husband, and one for my daughter, and one for my best friend?’ And, ‘Can I have 50 of them, to go up and down my street?’”

The store window of a U.S. Post Office contract station in a Castle Pines shopping center bears an American flag, part of GOP activist Crista Huff’s project aimed at subtly influencing voters to cast ballots for Republicans.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

She says her original goal was to give away 10,000 flags, “but it became clear in the first month I was going to be able to pass that,” adding that she passed out nearly 400 stickers at a single meeting of the Arapahoe County Tea Party last month alone.

“The moment I started,” she says, “it took off like wildfire. Everywhere I go, I see people with my flags on their cars, and it doesn’t matter whether I’m driving in downtown Denver or in rural Elbert County, I see my flags everywhere, and it’s really exciting.”

In addition to plastering the bumpers of Colorado cars — and some out-of-state, she says, noting that she shipped hundreds of bumperstickers to a Nevada campaign after they heard about her project and asked for a batch — she says business owners are putting the flags on their windows and handing them out to customers who talk politics.

“A car passes me and it has my flag on it, and I go to the library and there’s one of my cars, in the carpool lane, there’s one of my cars,” she says. “I think I’m dramatically increasing the number of flags on the backs of cars. In Elbert County, I gave away at least 1,000 of them.”

Though he observes that it’s “nice to see people taking political science research seriously and trying to apply it to real world politics,” University of Denver Political Science Associate Professor Seth Masket is skeptical.

“Looking at these studies, these are some very suggestive correlations,” says the professor, who specializes in analysis of political parties, campaigns and elections. “Going from there to actually applying it and trying to influence voters is very tricky.”

Masket — a Democrat, to be sure — describes what he calls an “interesting sub-literature on things people see at the moment they’re voting,” and how that can influence decisions. “For instance,” he says, “if people are voting in a church, they’ll vote differently on social issues than if they’re voting in a community center.” But he isn’t convinced that a “subtle exposure” to American flags can bend voters’ wills in a measurable way.

“There’s a lot of guess-work here. I would think there’d probably need to be a lot of research done how you’d go about actually influencing elections,” he says.

Part of the problem isolating the effect, he adds, is that American flags are ubiquitous around elections.

“Voters are guaranteed to be seeing flags all over the place,” he says with a chuckle, “including people walking out of a polling place with an ‘I Voted’ sticker, and voting is usually held at a place flying an American flag. It’d be hard to isolate an effect. That said, you’re certainly not going to hurt anyone by having flags in their face.”

Huff says the very ubiquity of the American flag makes her project all the more effective. Conservatives who want to influence their neighbors but fear retribution can feel safe displaying one of her stickers, she says.

“Some of the folks who live in places that are traditionally Democrat — Pueblo, Boulder, central Denver — these are people who generally do not feel safe putting up campaign signs and campaign bumper stickers — they are inviting property damage,” she says. “These folks are sort of chomping at the bit for a way to participate in elections, and now they have a way to participate, because pretty much no one is going to key your car if the only bumper sticker on there is a flag.”

One of the study’s authors told The Colorado Statesman that Huff’s bumper sticker project might have a more delicate effect than the one she is anticipating.

“One thing to keep in mind about our study is that the long-term influences were probably a product of both the subtlety and the timing of the flag prime,” wrote Carter in an email. “That is, the presence of the flag probably exerts its influence when people aren’t consciously thinking about what it means, who put it there, or why. And secondly, the rather dramatic effects we found were caused by the flag’s (subtle) presence at the particular moment when people were considering who they intended to vote for.

“Putting the bumper stickers into this context,” he continued, “they may very well be as subtle as what we did in our study, but they are also probably not likely to have a lasting effect unless people are viewing them while being asked to consider and declare who they’re voting for in the election.”

Asked to comment on the real-world application of the research he and his colleagues conducted, Carter didn’t sound very encouraging.

“So my guess is that they will probably contribute to the background of a typical election year (not to mention an Olympic season), with American flags and party paraphernalia all but inescapable, but not much more than that,” he wrote.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com