The Underdog: Losing Wins

Ian Palmer

In Campaigning, Strategy Posted

In campaigning it pays to be the underdog: and it’s not just the public’s desire to get behind the plucky upstart. Right across a campaign, the belief that your candidate isn’t the front-runner makes a campaign team’s job easier.

The area where it counts most is the number of votes you’re likely to get. People are much more likely to vote in a race they perceive as close. But more than that, they’re even more likely to vote if they believe you’re the underdog in a close race.

But beyond votes, during the campaign itself, being the underdog makes things easier. Fundraising, for example. If it looks like you’re romping home, people are much less likely to part with their hard earned cash. But telling them you’re losing, or – taking Obama’s famous record-breaking email – that you’re being outspent, makes it much more likely they’ll give.

Losing also helps you manage expectations – and means you’re less likely to face the scrutiny of the front-runner. It’s ‘theirs to lose’ – and any change in the state of the race will be viewed through that lens. Which takes us onto momentum – the ‘Big Mo’ – that X-factor of campaigns which is vital to get snowballing support and take an underdog to an easy victory. And momentum is hard for a front-runner to gain. They, generally, will find it much easier to lose ground than to gain it. A boring race with a clear front-runner makes for bad news, bad motivation (see above), and little interest. But a loss of momentum for the front-runner (or the gaining of it by an underdog) is both news worthy and fulfilling. Entering a contested race as the marginal front-runner can be a precarious position. As some of these candidates would vouch.

In a post-factual world, and with the important of social media, underdog status can provide a great defense to even legitimate criticism. As demonstrated by this article published today by the Huffington Post about perceived media bias by Corbyn supporters.

Yet again and again, campaigners fight to be recognised as ‘winning’ during a race; releasing polls showing they’re clear favourites, that they’re out-fundraising they’re opponents and that they have thousands of endorsements. But while this may be conventional campaigning wisdom, it can often be counter productive: positive pronouncements should be made within the wider campaign strategy, whilst acknowledging the cost of such actions. And too often quantity is chosen over quality: a good, unlikely ally or celebrity endorsement will always trump those of hundreds of relative unknowns from within the political fraternity. And one big unlikely donor generating strong media and momentum, will often trump the news of the top line fundraising total. As ever, context is king – and costs must also be considered alongside the benefits when deciding how to message the success of your campaign whilst it’s ongoing.