How Voters Respond to Electoral Defeat

Losers, weepers

James Walton

The “Discover Canada” page on the country’s immigration website—which had a dramatic traffic surge after Donald Trump’s success on Super Tuesday—-reminds those seeking citizenship that “the right to vote comes with a responsibility to vote.” Maybe Americans pondering a post-election escape north should heed this advice. After all, voting is a lot easier than moving, and very few U.S. citizens follow through on threats to emigrate post-election, according to Canadian census records.

But if few citizens flee after their candidate loses, voting for a loser can change citizens’ lives in other ways. According to one study, Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat decreased Republicans’ happiness twice as much as either the Boston Marathon bombing affected Bostonians’ happiness or the Newtown school shooting affected American parents’. The anguish of losing an election likewise exceeded the joy of winning—but the effect was short-lived: Within a week, voters returned to their emotional base level. [1]

Voting for a loser isn’t just mentally taxing. The day before and the day of the 2008 general election, researchers gathered multiple saliva samples from voters. Among men (but not women) who voted for a losing candidate, testosterone plummeted once the election was called, to a degree expected of actual contestants in a competition, rather than vicarious participants. [2]

Backing a losing candidate can also damage voters’ trust in the political system. An analysis of surveys from 1964 to 2004 found that over time, voters who supported losers were less likely than others to see the electoral process as fair. They also tended to be less satisfied with democracy generally. Notably, in 2004, John Kerry’s supporters rated their satisfaction with democracy 0.55 on a scale of 0 to 1, compared with George W. Bush supporters’ 0.77 rating. [3]

This disaffection is magnified when voters are startled by a loss. Among voters who backed losing candidates in Canada’s 1997 federal election, 72 percent of those who weren’t surprised remained satisfied with democracy, versus just 57 percent of those who were surprised [4]—an important finding given that analyses of the 1952–80 [5] and 2008 [6] U.S. presidential elections suggest that a solid majority of voters believe their candidate will win.

How can you avoid the pain of backing a loser? You could simply stay home on Election Day (the Canadian website’s nagging about voting be damned). Indeed, one body of research on decision making suggests that when you don’t care for your options, abstaining may be your best bet: Whether a choice is trivial (deciding between disliked pasta dishes, say) [7] or serious (taking a baby off life support), [8] people are most at peace with a negative outcome when they didn’t choose it themselves.

Nonetheless, do vote. While the sting of voting for a loser is fleeting, the damage inflicted by a bad president endures. Besides, if the outcome is truly unpalatable, Canada won’t want you unless you do.

The Studies:

[1] Pierce et al., “Losing Hurts” (Journal of Experimental Political Science, 2015)

[2] Stanton et al., “Dominance, Politics, and Physiology” (PLOS One, Oct. 2009)

[3] Craig et al., “Winners, Losers, and Election Context” (Political Research Quarterly, Dec. 2006)

[4] Nadeau et al., “Elections and Satisfaction With Democracy” (presented at the 2000 meeting of the American Political Science Association)

[5] Granberg and Brent, “When Prophecy Bends” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Sept. 1983)

[6] Krizan et al., “Wishful Thinking in the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election” (Psychological Science, Jan. 2010)

[7] Botti and Iyengar, “The Psychological Pleasure and Pain of Choosing” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Sept. 2004)

[8] Botti et al., “Tragic Choices” (Journal of Consumer Research, Oct. 2009