REPORTER: Aaron Lewis
A story on America's knife-edge mid-term elections should probably start here, at a very partisan rally for a candidate. But this story is not going to start there. Instead, it's going to start just down the road at a convention for twins, who are all dressed like Disney characters. I'm here because twins have something important to tell us about voting. Take Aaron and Zack, they grew up together in the same house, the same parents and they're identical twins. They share 100% of their DNA.
REPORTER: Where would you plot yourself on a left-right spectrum?
AARON: I'm a definite Liberal but....
ZACK: Yeah, but not all the way to the left.
Or identical sisters Julie and Janelle.
JULIE: Politically I feel we are very similar.
JANELLE: I think we're similar on everything. We always have the same views on everything.
REPORTER: On everything?
JANELLE: Pretty much.
In fact, all identical twins are highly likely to share the same political views. How unsurprising, you might say. But here's where it gets interesting. Whitney and Hallie may look like identical twins but they're not, they're fraternal twins. They grew up at the same time in the same house but their DNA is only 50% the same.
WHITNEY: I kind of ignore all politics generally.
REPORTER: And you're running for office?
WHITNEY: I support her though.
REPORTER: But it's very different?
It turns out that fraternal twins are very less likely to share political views compared to identical twins. That discovery was scientist's first clue that there's a genetic element to our political beliefs. Considered even mirrored twins like Lindsay and Lisbeth.
LINDSAY: I'm right-handed, she's left handed. Our teeth came in on different sides when we were little. She has three boys, I have three girls. It just seems like everything is opposite.
Physically opposite, but the political views, so not so much.
REPORTER: Do you share similar political opinions?
LISBETH: Yeah, we do share very similar political opinions. We are both conservative and, yeah. I mean, yeah I don't how to explain.
REPORTER: Are you active in politics at all?
LISBETH: A little bit but most of just a... A little bit, yeah.
In fact, all identical twins are likely to not only lean in the same direction, they're likely to lean equally far in that direction.
REPORTER: How it's going?
JANELLE: Good. We're having fun.
Twins research was the first step in what today is known as geno politics or the biology of voting. In the last decade geno politics has moved out to the population at large and the results are fascinating. Distinct groups of voters, they are also biologically distinct, to find out how distinct - you have to come here to this football stadium, strangely enough, just a short drive from the identical twin convention. The stadium is part of the University of Nebraska and it houses some of the world's leading research in political biology.
PROFESSOR KEVIN SMITH, CO-AUTHOR ‘PREDISPOSED': The sort of staff we're doing, it's really, really new. I mean, we're still trying to convince people that it's real. Alright, guys, come on into the lab.
Kevin Smith and John Hibbing have been hooking up plenty of Liberals and Conservatives to their machines.
PROFESSOR KEVIN SMITH: So who's first?
ALLISON: I'm first.
PROFESSOR KEVIN SMITH: Alright.
For today, we've recruited Allison, a Liberal activist, and Jill, a Conservative campaigner.
REPORTER: Nice, good look.
Once they're hooked up to just a few of the lab's sensors we can see their heart rate, perspiration rate and facial muscle contraction, all we need is something for them to respond to. In the research, Hibbing and Smith use a variety of images of sounds, smell and a whole range of carefully selected stimuli. But today, they've allowed me to choose a stimulus and I picked political attack ads from this election campaign.
AD: Evil forces from around the world want to harm Americans every day. They're entry into our country...through Arizona's back yard.
Like this one, suggesting Democrat's border policies could be allowing terrorists to enter via Mexico. Smith knows that Allison is frowning even when she is not aware of it. You can see the big, red spike on the screen.
PROFESSOR KEVIN SMITH: We can tell when the frowning muscle is furrowing. So we have probably got a better than chance shot of figuring out when she's looking at a negative picture.
That is one tiny data point knowing that Allison frowned right here. Allison reacts in the all the ways that Kevin Smith suspected that a young Liberal would.
PROFESSOR KEVIN SMITH: Did you see a second or two afterwards your skin conductor starts to go up and that would indicate you've had a negative reaction. Then your sympathetic nervous system is getting aroused by it a little bit.
Jill, my Republican volunteer on the other hand, was much less reactive to the ads.
PROFESSOR KEVIN SMITH: We're getting pretty clean signals, not as much reactivity on this read out.
Capture enough of these physical reactions from different people and compare them, as well as comparing the DNA of the subjects and patterns emerge. Patterns that show that people on the left and the right really do experience the world differently. For example, if you flash four images in a quadrant, one is an uninteresting car, another a plane tree, but you also include a scary spider and a delicious looking cake, the Liberal will actually see the cake before she even sees the rest of the quadrants. Her eye will jump straight there in a micro second. Liberal biology seems to be very efficient at finding rewards in their environment.
A Conservative eye may not jump to any one thing that quickly but when it hits the spider, it will linger for fractions of a second longer. Conservatives tend to have an edge in assessing danger in an environment.
PROFESSOR KEVIN SMITH: What Conservatives seem to pay more attention to, what they're more responsive to are aversive images, negative images. People on the left tend to be more responsive to hedonic, positive, pleasurable things, they tend to orient on those. If you look at from the position of the left and the right, the right are often accusing the left of the paying attention to the threat of immigration and people on the left are often accusing the right of paying too much attention to these threats that they think are non-existent and not paying enough attention to the good things in life.
Researchers and political biology are slowly teasing out more and more markers in the different ways that Conservatives and Liberals hear, smell, sweat and even respond to sugar. This research has been shocking to many, but the idea of a political predisposition doesn't shock Dallas Jones - a Republican running for a seat in the Nebraska State Legislature.
DALLAS JONES, NEBRASKA REPUBLICAN: People see the very same thing drastically differently. You'll hear people say regularly, on both sides, "I don't understand how they can even see it that way. What planet are they from?" Well, that's evidence to me that they probably need to understand what planet they're from.
The interests of science, I decided to get tested too, to find out what planet I'm from. My results pointed to a deep biological conservatism, which is funny, because I never thought of myself that way. In actual fact, the edge that political biologists currently have in predicting your political beliefs is just 15% better than chance. And yet, even that 15% is enough to make this research deeply unpopular with many on both the left and right.
PROFESSOR KEVIN SMITH: They want to believe that this is a product of rationality, that this is something that I've thought about. It's not something that has anything to do with my biology. You know, convincing people that is not incorrect but an incomplete view of how people arrive at their political attitudes and behaviours takes a lot of work and a lot of data.
Of all the people I spoke with, the people who were most accepting of the idea of a genetic predisposition were the mirror twins.
REPORTER: A Liberal and a Conservative?
REPORTER: They sweat differently.
WHITNEY: Oh, wow. I got chills.
HALLIE: Me too.
The twins are right - this is really exciting stuff. That's why I didn't start the story here, at the rally for Nebraska's mid-term candidates, because after almost two decades of reporting politicians, I suddenly approach rooms like this one differently.
MAN: Who wouldn't want to do that?
It's suddenly somehow easier to agree to disagree.
PROFESSOR KEVIN SMITH: People think, "If I can just sit down and give this person enough information who is on the opposite end from me, they will see the world my way." Don't bank on it. The people on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum quite literally see and experience a different world to you. Once people on both sides recognise that, rather than going for a persuasion, "It's my way or the highway", it probably becomes a lot easier to figure out the best that I can achieve is compromise.
Compromise is not going to be easy, the Republicans are set to gain ground in these elections, and possibly win control of the Senate, setting the stage for renewed confrontation with the country's Democratic President.
MAN: Do you solemnly swear and affirm that you will support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic...
The nation will need to learn compromise. Perhaps accepting how deep their differences go is a good first lesson.
Original Music Composed by VICKI HANSEN
4th November 2014