Barack Obama’s re-election campaign was lauded for its Buzzfeed-like attention to digital analytics. Like any good marketers, the campaign’s digital team quantified, among other things, the effectiveness of the emails they blasted out. “The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your inbox from other people,” the Obama campaign’s email director told Businessweek. Their most successful subject line? “Hey.”
What's the best way to get people to part with their money? Nonchalance, in this case, worked wonders. But that’s not the conventional wisdom in politics, where confidence is key, even if it’s in excess. Between 1900 and 1984, a presidential candidate’s success could practically be predicted by whether the speeches they gave at their parties’ conventions were confidently optimistic. And succeeding in a presidential debate is sometimes as simple as looking composed and self-assured.
But a new working paper out of Harvard’s Kennedy School suggests that Obama’s team was onto something—that it’s okay to not always project poise. In experiments run by the authors, people were more likely to support a given candidate if that candidate was slightly behind in the polls, as opposed to slightly ahead. The researchers also incorporated some data from experiments during an actual 2012 campaign, analyzing emails sent out to supporters of Charlie Crist, the incumbent governor of Florida. Messages that warned Crist was barely trailing his opponent, Rick Scott, raised 55 percent more money than emails that said he was slightly ahead.