Study Reveals Pros and Cons of Being a Political Underdog

TAMPA, Fla. (Aug. 21, 2008) – Besides having been candidates for President of the United States, what do Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, Barack Obama, Tommy Thompson and Bill Richardson all have in common? They have all been self-proclaimed ‘underdogs’ in the 2008 race for the White House.

"Our studies suggest that the underdog label can reap benefits for candidates, especially when their political ‘base’ sees them as an underdog," says Nadav Goldschmied, a lecturer at the University of San Diego, and lead author of a study examining the underdog political label. "However, self-proclaimed underdogs must be careful as to not appear disingenuous, which may turn off some voters who might see them as seeking a disadvantaged identity."

The study, co-authored by University of South Florida associate professor of psychology Joseph Vandello, also found that underdog status could connote favorable qualities - as often seen in sports - and might be more effective for candidates if others, such as members of the media, not themselves, label them as underdogs.

"People intuitively appreciate the appeal of an underdog," explains Vandello, citing famous underdogs from David and Goliath to the 1980 U.S. Olympic ice hockey team. "But there has been little research on how the underdog label in politics impacts voter attitudes, preferences and voting behavior."

One phase of their study, soon to be published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, focused on early voter impressions of Barack Obama and the potential negative or positive effects of his underdog label. The researchers paid special attention to whether the underdog label affected perceptions of a candidate’s "warmth" and "competence."

When the researchers tested the possible benefits of being labeled a political underdog, one conclusion among many was that as far back as 2007 Obama was rated more likeable as an underdog among those already inclined to vote for him. However, the underdog label did not affect the voting behavior among those who were not already inclined to vote for him in the study’s mock-election.

"The underdog designation may play better to one’s base," suggests Goldschmied. "Politicians seem to intuitively grasp this, given their almost unanimous propensity to claim the underdog label. Yet the underdog effect was stronger when underdog status was conferred by others rather than the candidates themselves."

The study revealed a number of interesting twists and turns to which candidates, who may be either self-labeled or other-labeled as underdogs, may want to pay attention. Specifically, as Obama moves from the underdog in the Democratic primary race to the frontrunner in the general election against McCain, his new status may actually cost him likeability among the electorate. More generally, this research suggests a possible reason why momentum seems to constantly shift in the months leading up to elections: people’s love of underdogs may mean that gains in the polls are accompanied by losses of perceived warmth.

The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of 39 community-engaged public universities as designated by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. USF was awarded more than $300 million in research contracts and grants last year. The university offers 219 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The university has a $1.6 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 45,000 students on campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.

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