Underdog vs. Loser

The national media has written us off. Sen. Obama is measuring the drapes and planning with Speaker Pelosi and Sen. Reid to raise taxes, increase spending, take away your right to vote by secret ballot in labor elections and concede defeat in Iraq. But they forgot to let you decide. My friends, we’ve got them just where we want them.”

John McCain, October 13, 2008

This little comment received a lot of commentary over the course of yesterday and today, and I just wanted to look at it from a poli-sci standpoint.

Understand, there is some merit to being an underdog, at least theoretically.  The way the logic works is that if you are trailing a little bit, your volunteers will work harder, and your supporters will take the election more seriously and actually go vote as opposed to staying home and playing on their Playstations.  Still, for this to move from theory to practice, a number of factors have to be in play.

You need a ground game that is at least competitive, if not significantly better than your opponent’s.  Also, there should be relatively high enthusiasm for the ticket, and the deficit in the polls needs to be relatively small.  That or the number of supporters that are only likely to vote in extreme circumstances needs to be relatively high, and in this situation I’m talking about those supporters that don’t necessarily make it through likely voter filters (for the record, McCain’s supporters tend to be in the likely voter brackets).

Being the underdog can give a campaign a scrappy insurgency feel, and I’ll admit that such a thing has its advantages.  But in just those factors I discussed above, McCain has some problems.  For instance, while Palin was able to close the enthusiasm gap for a while, it eventually opened right back up.  Also, all indicators seem to point to Obama’s ground game being far superior than that of McCain’s (for a little anecdotal evidence, I live in a battleground state, in a Republican district.  I’ve received no fewer than six phone calls from Obama people and learned just today that there are at least two field offices that are right down the street from each other.  I have yet to receive any kind of phone call, and have yet to find the field office for McCain, and I’ve actually looked.  Given this area’s importance, there should be no reason why McCain doesn’t have a presence that is at least competitive with Obama’s, but that’s just not the case).

With this statement, McCain is also attempting to remind people of his winning the nomination after being written off in the primaries.  I’ve already thoroughly discussed the failings in that line of thought, and you can read that here.  But the short story is that McCain’s opponents all essentially collapsed before him, giving him an easy path to the nomination.  Obama had a bitter and tough battle that effectively prepared him for the final stage of the presidential campaign.

McCain is trying to claim the title of Underdog because it’s a coveted title.  It boosts passion and enthusiasm, can help with fundraising, and can prod surrogates and talking heads in one’s favor.  McCain’s problem, though, is that it’s been a long time since McCain was the underdog.  Instead, the more apt mantle he wears now is that of a perceived loser.

The definitions may be similar in this context, but the political effects couldn’t be more different.  Everyone wants to root and work for the underdog, they want to be a part of that Disney movie-like quality of winning against tough odds.  But when loss appears inevitable, the Disney movie charm quickly evaporates and is replaced only with failure, humiliation, and more loss.

Indeed, when you have the loser stink on you, the effects could be the dead opposite of being just an underdog.  Donations start to dry up as people don’t see the necessity of giving money to a campaign that won’t win.  Other politicians start to distance themselves, fearful that the loser stink may stick to them.  Putting it in a less crude way, whatever it is that you are doing that has you ten points down three weeks out, fellow pols in the same party don’t want to be associated with it.  We’ve seen this in the recent actions of Florida Governor Charlie Crist, and Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman.  Likewise, the talking heads start to abandon you, the list we have in this instance having grown too long to type here.

But there’s a common sense way to look at it that almost negates everything I wrote above.  Imagine you’re a politician running for office.  Do you really want to be eight to ten points down three weeks out?

No, I didn’t think so.

(edited by DrGail)

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