Politics and Public Policy

Behavioral politics: Do we shape the polls or do they shape the vote?

On January 3rd, 2008 in Iowa, Obama took a huge step towards being elected as the 44th president of the USA. It was the night of the first Democratic primary and Obama was sitting at the victory throne with 38% of the Democratic vote, leaving John Edwards in the second line with 30%  and Hillary Clinton in the third with 29%. During his campaign, Obama highly focused on Iowa and turned even some Republican party members to vote in favor of him. But why was Iowa  so important?

Traditionally, the Democratic Party holds primaries across the whole nation before determining the presidential nominee, connecting with its members across constituencies, and learning about their favorite candidate.  By convention, Iowa is the first state to host the caucus and everybody knows that you never forget your first. So when Obama, the underdog, unexpectedly won the Iowa primary, the whole nation held its breath. This win initiated excitement among the youth, but it was not going to be the biggest success of the Obama campaign. The second important day was Super Tuesday when over one-third of the states held their primaries. By the date of Super Tuesday, Edwards was out of the race, and Hillary was approved by many elderly Democrats. Shockingly, during Super Tuesday Obama won 13 states, and Hillary 10.  After February 5th, Obama’s nomination was certain. 

Now,  it is known that Obama hired a team of behavioral scientists to enhance his campaign methods. Despite not being official, it is highly suspected that they aimed at putting more efforts into grass-rooting in strategic states, leading to the spread of inspirational stories in the media. Across states, Obama created a movement of hope and excitement with his wins and poll results. However, the question is whether it is possible to point to a cause-effect relation between these motivational poll results and his winning outcomes. In other words, did the flow of motivation in youth after primaries make Obama win the nomination, or was he always the obvious choice and won the primaries because of that?

First of all, one should look into the bandwagon effect. This effect refers to the tendency for people to choose a course of action, adopt certain behaviors, styles, or attitudes simply because others are doing so. There are several underlying reasons for this. First of all, people feel a need to ‘fit in’, and being on the same page with others creates satisfaction deriving from conformity. Secondly, humans retrieve information from each other, acting cooperatively and trusting others’ decisions. The bandwagon effect is on the basis of some fashion trends or herd mentality. 

It can be challenging to prove whether the bandwagon effect exists in practice. The ones that defend its existence draw an association between the effect and opinion polling:  they argue that when people see poll results, they tend to be influenced and also choose well-performing candidates. One of the reasons provided is that everybody wants to be on the winning team. Moreover, many countries have regulations regarding electoral thresholds, meaning that if your preferred candidate cannot pass the threshold, you may lose your chance of getting represented, which might lead to strategic voting choices. Strategic voting refers to not voting for your most preferred candidate but instead for the potential winner who is relatively more in alignment with one’s interests. 

Several countries have blackout policies that have been introduced to prevent the bandwagon effect during elections. For instance, in the 1970s France prohibited any announcement of poll results one week prior to the election, a policy which was in place until 2001. Indeed, this situation is more common than one might think: out of the 216 countries whose election rules are tracked by the United Nations-backed Electoral Knowledge Network, 92 have some kind of regulated blackout period where polls cannot be published prior to voting. 

Research has also shown that the knowledge of there being one presumed winner in an election has a negative effect on voter turn-out. Moreover, there seems to be an association between social capital and herd behavior. Indeed, according to political scientist Hartman, the less educated part of society tends to be more influenced in its voting decisions by poll results. 

Researchers at Michigan University have looked at the effect of polls on the 1988 Canadian election, with three different analytic approaches: a campaign-pooled data analysis, a time-series analysis, and a panel analysis. Eventually, they reach four different conclusions regarding this specific election:

  1. Polls affected voters’ perceptions of various parties’ chances of winning;
  2. Polls affected the vote;
  3. Polls affected strategic voting, as some voters became less inclined to support a party whose chances of winning appeared slim;
  4. Polls did not have a bandwagon effect, since voters did not come to evaluate the parties and the leaders who were doing well in the polls more positively.

This last conclusion is striking because it shows that politics is a game and, in the end, one is likely to vote for a party that can win and that you do not hate. This might be the underlying reason for political parties’ accelerating approach towards the center. 

We cannot say whether Iowa and Super Tuesday made Obama win the nomination. However, maybe these primaries helped some similar views come together under his campaign. One of the most vivid examples of this is John Edwards. Even though he was ranking in the top three in almost all of the polls, he decided to step down and support Obama. It can be claimed that this kind of strategic voting decision, combined with some Democrats’ groupthink behavior, eventually fueled the drive to his nomination. 

In conclusion, you look at the polls, get informed about policies, and choose your candidate either strategically or under the bandwagon effect. After all, as Kin Hubbard said “we would all like to vote for the best man but he is never a candidate.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s