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Underdogs, Top Dogs, and Media Campaign Coverage

- January 16, 2008

From a political candidate’s perspective, nothing seems more dangerous than being regarded by the media as the front-runner. When that happens, the media become more likely to view the candidate carefully and critically, and the candidate is apt to suffer as a consequence. In this year’s race for the Republican nomination, for example, Fred Thompson was lionized as long as he stayed out of the race, but began being portrayed as hopeless soon after he got in. The same yo-yo effect can be seen in coverage of Mike Huckabee, which was largely favorable when he was regarded as a long-shot but turned increasingly critical once he began to emerge as a more credible possibility.

To some extent, this recurrent process presumably reflects characteristics of the candidates themselves that initially seem either charming or off-putting but lend themselves to sudden reversals as circumstances change. But to some extent, too, it probably reflects broader tendencies in person percpetion to which the media, like the rest of us, are prone.

That, at least is an implication of a recent study (abstract here) on the appeal of “underdogs.” The authors of that study, Joseph Vandello, Nadav Goldschmied, and David Richards begin by noting the well-documented psychological tendency to identify oneself with “winners.” Even so, Vandello and associates argue, in a given competitive situation there may be strong motivations to cheer for the underdog — for the team or individual that is perceived to be at a competitive disadvantage. That argument proves to be accurate in the context of experiments involving students’ side-taking in Olympics competitions and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That initial set of findings, however, leaves open the quesiton of the psychological mechanism that leads people to side with the underdog. In follow-up experiments, the researchers found that the participants in their experiments attributed greater effort to a team they perceived as the underdog, and that attribution in turn led them to favor the side that they perceived as having to try harder.

This positive effect of being considered an underdog wasn’t unlimited, though. What, the researchers asked, would happen if a team with low expectations of success wasn’t seen as disadvantaged? Would it still arouse sympathy? To help them form an answer, they presented their experimental participants with one of four scenarios, depending on whether a team was described as having a 70% or a 30% chance of victory and whether it was simultaneously described as having a payroll of $100 million or $35 million. The results indicated that the participants didn’t support an underdog team simply because it was an underdog; rather, a team that was said to have a lower chance of winning even though it had superior resources lost the participants’ support.

Now plug these experimental findings back into the real world of media coverage of political campaigns and what do you get? Something pretty much along the lines, I think, of what the yo-yo effect that’s become so familiar in recent presidential campaigns.