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Election Countdown: The Undecided and the Underdog

12/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John McCain has Barack Obama right where he wants him: on top. For weeks, Obama has slugged his way through debates, a slurry of negative attacks by the McCain campaign, and, of course, a few damaging and bizarre remarks a la Joe Biden. And still, Obama is on top. The Illinois senator's resilience is remarkable as his standing in the polls has shown strong leads over McCain. In fact, Obama hasn't merely weathered recent storms but has come out beaming, with many parts of the mainstream media not just supporting and endorsing him but feeling confident enough to proudly expound their pro-Obamaness.

Slate Magazine recently published a breakdown of how its staff and contributors will be voting, and with 55 Slaters voting for Obama and a measly one for McCain, as far as Slate is concerned it's a landslide. Even the cr éme de la créme of conservative commentary and politics is turning to Obama, with Christopher Hitchens, Chris Buckley, and Colin Powell among the Right's luminaries who have made the leap.

This is all great news for Obama. But it's even better news for McCain. From the get-go, John McCain knew he was up against more than just a politician. Barack Obama is a scholar, an activist, a celebrity, an orator, and even an athlete. He's a star, the guy who has it all.

John McCain, on the other hand, doesn't have it all - or at least doesn't appear to have it all, and that's where he loves to be. After coming out in support of the Bush Administration on most issues, after being publicly embarrassed about the number of houses owns, after making nice with Jerry Falwell, and after suffering endless jokes about his age, John McCain's campaign faced a huge threat: the public might see him as just another "Warshington" Republican, another hack, another four years.

But today, something is different. McCain managed to resurrect not himself but an image of himself that he'd cultivated for decades in the senate: Maverick McCain. With Obama packing stadiums and being fawned over by the mainstream media, McCain once again looks like the underdog.

There are two opposing sociological trends in voting. One is the underdog effect where voters, for whatever reason, cast their votes for the guy who's not on top. The other theoretical trend is the bandwagon effect, which says people vote for someone because many other people have already done so. The question relevant to Tuesday's election is which effect will predominate among undecided voters.

The Obama campaign is encouraging people to get out to vote because they know two things to be true. The first is that increased voter turnout will likely mean an increase in voting by people who naturally support Obama (college-age, minorities, lower income) but usually don't make it to the polls in huge numbers. The second thing the campaign knows, though, is that they need to create an election day bandwagon effect to sway undecided voters in their direction.

But here's the problem. A bandwagon effect has already occurred, and in a very public way. Obama is able to fill stadiums, have media come out on his side, and even attract, very spectacularly, guys from the other side. In other words, support for him is explicit. The danger of this is twofold. First, a premature bandwagon effect could trigger an underdog effect, which, with Obama's polling lead wobbling in the days before the election, is already happening. Second, Obama supporters might think -- in droves -- that the thing is in the bag, so why bother going all the way to the polling station to actually vote.

But there's also another factor, a sort of political coefficient, which could magnify the effects of all of this. Researchers at Harvard and the University of Washington developed methods for distinguishing between a person's explicit preferences, what they say they like, and their implicit preferences, what they actually like (presumably how they behave). The Implicit Association Test, as it's called, can test for many different things, one of them being voting preference. While there aren't hard and fast numbers on this election yet, a few conclusions have been drawn. One is that Democrats tend to be implicitly (and explicitly) pro-Obama, and Republicans pro-McCain. Big surprise there. Another conclusion is that independents tend to be implicitly pro-Obama. That actually is interesting. But the third conclusion is even more so: undecided voters tend to be pro-Obama - explicitly. Implicitly: they are pro-McCain. That is very interesting.

The bandwagon that the Obama campaign is expecting might not show up. With the possibility of Obama supporters' over-confidence, the early onset of the explicit bandwagoning, and the proclivity of undecideds to vote McCain, there is a real danger. And with Obama himself off the campaign trail (and John McCain definitely still on it), these trends are being unnecessarily strengthened.

Shimon Peres once famously remarked that polls are like perfume: nice to smell but dangerous to swallow. It's not totally clear if the Obama campaign has been swilling political Eau de Toilette or not but the McCain campaign has steered clear of the stuff (which, some might say, is why that campaign stinks). The question remains but will be answered in a few short days. The only thing we can say about it now is that the answer isn't as certain as many would like to believe.

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