The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New research shows the Internet loves a political underdog

Former GOP governor Charlie Crist shown at a campaign stop in North Miami in August. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

If it appears that your favorite candidate has been flooding your e-mail box with tales of woe lately, here's one reason why: New research shows that the Internet loves an underdog candidate.

A pair of behavioral scientists, Todd Rogers of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Don A. Moore of the University of California at Berkeley, examined whether campaign donors are more likely to open their wallets for a candidate who's projected to win or one who's projected to lose.

Working with the online fundraising and digital marketing firm Anne Lewis Strategies, the researchers tracked the outcomes of e-mails sent on two days in June to the e-mail list of the Democratic Governors Association. The e-mails were aimed at fundraising around the gubernatorial race pitting Florida Democrat Charlie Crist against Republican Rick Scott. The e-mails were identical except for the first line: One said: "We've fallen behind Rick Scott in the latest polls," while the other said: "Rick Scott is LOSING in three straight polls."

Luckily for science, the polling on the race has been tight enough to justify either interpretation of the state of the contest.

The down-by-a-hair e-mails turned out to be the big winner, with people far more likely to support a candidate who is barely losing than one just barely winning. The underdog e-mails raised 60 percent more money than those that suggested that the race was still close but that the preferred candidate had pulled ahead, according to the study released last week, "The Motivating Power of Under-Confidence."

"This constant testing of widely varying messages could generate the pattern we observe: messages highlighting that the candidate is barely losing may tend to dominate other messages," the study says.

This makes some intuitive sense. Voters have little interest in spending money to ensure victory. But there are wrinkles. For supporters, the idea that your candidate is losing is appealing. But the pitch doesn't work on uncommitted voters.

Rogers and Moore also found that would-be voters were more likely to support a fictional candidate when they were first presented with positive statements about their candidacy. The researchers attribute that to the behavioral practice of "herding," in which we humans are likely to throw our lots in with those who others seem to believe are likely to succeed.

"Talking to uncommitted voters," says Lewis, "is like going on a first date. You want them to think you're a winner. But after you've been married for 20 years, you can be a little more like, 'Yikes, I need help.'"

That helps explain one dichotomy of politics. On television, where candidates are appealing to a general audience, they're likely to talk about the strength of their campaign. But their online mailing lists tend to be made up of supporters -- one reason that candidates often appear far more sad sack in our e-mail inboxes than on our TV sets.

"The beauty of online fundraising," says Lewis, "is that you can tell immediately that it's working."

Some Democrats have been grumbling that the party is abusing its e-mail list by sending too many, often desperate, e-mails, but the stakes are enormously high, Lewis notes.

A campaign can turn a single poll into three or four different e-mail pleas for support, she says, which can add up to a couple dozen e-mail hits over the course of a campaign. Given that the single biggest predictor of whether people will donate is whether they've given money before, the ability to increase the likelihood of getting a contribution 60 percent by tailoring the e-mails to the sympathy of supporters can compound the potential payoff. That, says Lewis, can add up to real money, in the neighborhood of hundreds of thousands of dollars in the final days of a single Senate race.

"That can be enough to make a difference in an individual race," says Lewis, and given the closeness of the fight for who will control that branch of Congress, "that can be enough to decide the balance of power in the Senate."