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Underdogs jumping on bandwagons

While I cannot know what the results Tuesday will bring, by the time you read this, there is no doubt we will have heard a great deal about either “bandwagons” or “underdogs.”

Several years ago, this column helped me realize a life-long dream — promulgating my own law. Mellman’s First Law of Aphorisms states that for every aphorism, there is an equal and opposite aphorism.

Does “absence make the heart grow fonder,” or is it “out of sight, out of mind”? Is “the grass always greener on the other side,” or is there “no place like home”? Should you “look before you leap,” or recognize that “he who hesitates is lost”?

Pundits talk about bandwagon effects, asserting, “Everybody wants to be with a winner.” Or does “everybody love an underdog”?

In truth we know precious little about bandwagons or underdog effects.

The former term apparently entered the political lexicon during the Zachary Taylor campaign, when famous clown and Uncle Sam model Dan Rice would parade the candidate around town in circus bandwagons. Local politicians eagerly jumped onto Taylor’s bandwagon, hoping to benefit from the general’s popularity.

By 1940, politicians were railing against bandwagon effects they perceived as pervasive and pernicious. Oregon Rep. Walter Pierce (D) complained: “I am convinced that voters like to climb onto the bandwagon and that polls greatly increase the bandwagon vote. It has been said, and I think truly, that one-fifth of all the voters try to pick a winner.”

Though Pierce could cite no empirical evidence, a single 1940 quotation, from an interview with a Pennsylvania voter by election researcher Paul Lazarsfeld, provided the bandwagon effect with an academic patina. “Just before the election,” the voter famously reported, “it looked like Roosevelt would win, so I went with the crowd. Didn’t make any difference to me who won, but I wanted to vote for the winner.”

Underdog effects seem to have first been cited to explain the famous polling failure (and concomitant failure of the bandwagon hypothesis) of 1948, when, despite the headline, Truman actually defeated Dewey. Shame-faced pollsters claimed voters rallied around underdog Truman.

Since then, scores of studies attempted to asses the power of each effect, but no solid conclusion has yet emerged.

Most of these experiments manipulate poll data given to respondents suggesting a real or fictitious candidate has one size lead or other. Some find significant bandwagon effects, some find significant underdog effects, some find both and some find neither.

While there is lots of evidence that people influence the behavior of others and a good deal of evidence for the impact of momentum, there is little evidence that voters simply rally around winners.

Sociologist Duncan Watts and his colleagues demonstrated the impact of social influence in a recent Web-based experiment that invited over 14,000 participants to listen to, and, if they chose, download songs by bands they had never heard of. Some participants only saw song titles and band names. Another group also saw how many times other participants had downloaded the songs. The second group was more likely to download songs already selected by large numbers of others, while participants who did not know which tunes were most popular downloaded a meaningfully different set of songs.

However, the ability of people to influence one another is not the same thing as simply rallying around a winner.

Neither is momentum, which results from a heightened sense of candidate viability and vastly increased visibility.

Sympathy apparently underlies underdog effects, but the how and why are even less clear here.

So while last week’s bandwagon explanation could be transformed into this week’s underdog effect, beware those who reduce the results to simple aphorisms.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.