The Sovereign Mind

Free thought on politics and real life

The Psychology of the Underdog

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I am an unashamed undecided voter. However, I am leaning toward McCain. The main reason I remain uncommitted is that I don’t really like either candidate. I think they are both great people, but I don’t like how they have run their campaigns, and I don’t agree with many of their positions.

As I’ve pondered who I might vote for, I’ve noticed an unsettling idea creeping into my head. Psychologically, it seems like it will be easier for me to pull the lever for the candidate I think will lose, because by doing so I won’t have any responsibility for what the new president might do. Now, don’t get be wrong. I’m not saying this is a valid reason to support a candidate, and I will be fighting this inclination in myself. But just saying that it is not right does not make it not real.

So am I alone in this? Could this be part of the explanation for why election polls tend to tighten as the race gets closer to election day, including this one? Will undecides (the majority of whom probably aren’t thrilled about either candidate) break toward the underdog?

I don’t know, but I came across this recounting of history that was interesting to this discussion:

There is a precedent for this kind of thinking in presidential politics. The most famous example came in the fall of 1976, when Gerald Ford battled his way back from a mammoth 33-point deficit against Jimmy Carter. Ford capped his methodical comeback the weekend before the election when polls showed him – for the first time in the entire campaign–pulling ahead of Carter. The prospect of Ford actually winning the election sparked some widespread second-guessing among his softest supporters. Hang on, they seemed to say, are we really going to give four more years to the guy who pardoned Nixon? After two months of steady gains, Ford’s support dropped that final weekend and Carter won the race by two points.

So electors increasing supported Ford, until it got to the point where he might win, and then backed off, allowing Carter to win instead. This seems to support my argument: it’s psychologically easier to support the underdog.

But if I’m right, it’s not all good news for McCain. After all, the underdog is only the underdog while he is behind, of course. If McCain is able to catch up to Obama, and there is not a clear expected loser, the psychological tendency to “wash my hands” will be nullified. So I still think Obama will win, but McCain could make it close.


Written by Mike

October 23, 2008 at 8:31 pm

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