The underdog effect is a phenomenon of public opinion impinging upon itself: when at an election voters perceive a particular party or candidate to be the likely winner, they tend to support a competitor who is expected to lose – an “underdog” in the race. This implies that apparent success may undermine itself. The origin of the term is unclear, although it is sometimes claimed that it was first used at the 1948 US presidential election. Simon (1954) was the first to use it in a scientific analysis.
The underdog effect is one of several hypothesized manifestations of “impersonal influence” – effects on individuals’ attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors that derive from these persons’ impressions about the attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors of collectives of anonymous others outside the realm of their personal contacts (Mutz 1998). Other examples are the “bandwagon effect,” complementing the underdog effect by assuming a positive impact of perceived majority opinion, and the notion of “strategic” or “tactical” voting, which expects electors to refrain from choosing their candidate or party of first preference if they perceive it to be only weakly supported by others, in order not to waste their vote.
In the literature, the underdog effect is typically treated as a companion to the bandwagon effect, emerging from the same cause, but leading to a contrary consequence: “If persons are more likely to vote for a candidate when they expect him to win than when they expect him to lose, we have a ‘bandwagon’ effect; if the opposite holds, we have an ‘underdog’ effect” (Simon 1954, 246). However, the implications of this understanding are only clear in the case of two-party systems: turning away from the likely winner automatically implies supporting its sole, apparently losing competitor, as there are no other alternatives left. In multiparty systems it is somewhat ambiguous what the underdog effect might consist in, as voters are faced with several “underdogs” of which not necessarily all are getting weaker if the likely winner is surging, and from which they can only choose one. Under these more complex circumstances, the notion implies the expectation that the anticipated winner of an election will lose votes, but entails no assumption about who will profit from this. It therefore appears appropriate to characterize the underdog effect as an “antibandwagon effect” (Irwin & Van Holsteyn 2000).
The media are the main source of information on preference distributions among the citizenry at large (Mutz 1998). Published findings from public opinion polls are an important type of such mass feedback, although not the only one. Because of the pervasive trend toward “horse-race journalism,” the question of who is ahead and who is trailing behind is ascribed high news value in modern election coverage. Accordingly, journalists and politicians have also become key sources of mediated statements about the mass public’s political sympathies. Stylistic devices like exemplars or man-in-the-street interviews help journalists to convey impressions of where the public stands regarding candidates or parties prior to elections.
As reporting on public opinion is thus a multifaceted phenomenon, the quality of the information on which citizens base their impressions is critically relevant. Many studies indicate that media audiences are not sufficiently capable to distinguish between sources of valid information, such as well-conducted polls, and sources of dubious significance. Audiences may thus fall victim to “pluralistic ignorance,” deriving preferences from impressions about the opinions of their fellow citizens that are actually wrong.
Among social scientists, the underdog effect has attracted less interest than its complement, the bandwagon effect. The empirical evidence indicating that underdog effects are real is far weaker. Few studies were so far able to present findings that suggest the operation of underdog effects (Fleitas 1971; Ceci & Kain 1982; Lavrakas et al. 1991). Matching this rather unsatisfactory state of research is the weak theoretical underpinning that has been developed to make the notion of underdog effects plausible. Sometimes they are depicted as rather irrational emotional responses to a party’s or candidate’s seeming dominance, emerging out of feelings of pity or compassion for apparent losers or of defiance toward apparent winners. More rational interpretations propose a dislike of large majorities or an anti-establishment bias on the part of voters as motives for supporting minority competitors. More convincing and less ad hoc is a model offered by Mutz (1998), which also accounts for the reasons why the same distribution of public opinion may lead to an underdog effect among some voters, and to a bandwagon effect among others. According to this view, the former is the likely response of voters who are politically involved and strongly committed to a party or candidate that seems to be losing. Among such individuals, the observation of a disadvantageous distribution of support may trigger a “cognitive response mechanism,” stimulating them to think up counterarguments, and making them thus highly aware of the necessity of supporting their own camp.
- Ceci, S. J., & Kain, E. L. (1982). Jumping on the bandwagon with the underdog: The impact of attitude polls on polling behavior. Public Opinion Quarterly, 46, 228–242.
- Fleitas, D. W. (1971). Bandwagon and underdog effects in minimal-information elections. American Political Science Review, 65(2), 434–438.
- Irwin, G. A., & Van Holsteyn, J. J. M. (2000). Bandwagons, underdogs, the Titanic, and the Red Cross: The influence of public opinion polls on voters. Paper prepared for presentation at the XVIIIth World Congress of the International Political Science Association, Quebec, August 1–5.
- Lavrakas, P., Holley, J. K., & Miller, P. V. (1991). Public reactions to polling news during the 1988 presidential election campaign. In P. J. Lavrakas & J. K. Holley (eds.), Polling and presidential election coverage. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, pp. 151–183.
- Mutz, D. C. (1998). Impersonal influence: How perceptions of mass collectives affect political attitudes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Simon, H. A. (1954). Bandwagon and underdog effects and the possibility of election predictions. Public Opinion Quarterly, 18, 245–253.