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Electoral Studies 32 (2013) 334343

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Electoral Studies
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Nail-biters and no-contests: The effect of electoral margins on

satisfaction with democracy in winners and losers
Patrick Howell 1, Florian Justwan*,1
School of Public and International Affairs, University of Georgia, Candler Hall, Athens, GA 30602-1492, United States

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: Previous scholarship has found robust connections between winning an election and
Received 2 June 2012 democratic system support. Building on this connection, our analysis theorizes an addi-
Received in revised form 30 October 2012 tional dimension of competitiveness existing in executive elections. We hypothesize a
Accepted 13 February 2013
polarizing effect in close elections: that individuals feel the most satised after winning by
a narrow margin, while losers will be most dissatised. Using survey data from eighteen
national elections across eight countries, our ndings support half of this expectation.
System support
Winner satisfaction with democratic systems is highest in close elections and erodes as
Democratic satisfaction
Affective intelligence
margin increases. Losers reported satisfaction is not affected by margin those who lose
Competitiveness by half a percent are indistinguishable in levels of system support from those who lose in
Elections landslides.
2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction are unique because the stakes are very high. Since only one
candidate or party can get the job of top executive, sup-
In this paper, we examine the relationship between porters of a particular contender know that they will not be
voters reported satisfaction with democracy and their represented at the most important elected position in the
identied party afliations recent electoral experience country if their preferred candidate loses.
using cross-national survey data. While the existing liter- Due to this feature of electoral competition, a key vari-
ature on the relationship between elections and demo- able of interest is a measure of party/candidate competi-
cratic satisfaction has largely focused on varieties of tiveness. Previous research has overlooked the importance
parliamentary systems, this paper applies a broader focus of victory margin, i.e. the distance between an individuals
and analyzes elections that led to single-party control of voted-for party and his/her reference point, on system
the executive branch. Specically, we look at elections in support. We specically argue that the factor of singular
(1) presidential systems and (2) majoritarian systems that executive control will lead to heightened levels of anxiety
led to single-party governments.2 These types of elections in voters in very close elections. As predicted by theories of
affective intelligence, anxiety will prompt individuals to
invest more (cognitive) resources into their decision in the
* Corresponding author. Tel.: 1 713 305 8983; fax: 1 706 583 8266.
voting booth (Marcus and MacKuen, 1993). This leads us to
E-mail addresses: (P. Howell), (F.
hypothesize a polarizing effect due to anxiety in close
Both authors contributed equally to this article. Their names are listed elections that winners feel more satised after winning
in alphabetic order. by a narrow margin, while losers will feel even more
While we are aware of the fact that many cabinets in presidential dissatised following a close loss. In the end, our ndings
systems comprise members of multiple parties, we consciously choose support half of this expectation. Winner satisfaction with
the formulations single-party control of the executive branch and
single-party government in order to improve readability. We argue that
democratic systems is highest at closer margins and erodes
this approach is justied since the president is the main source of power as margin increases. Meanwhile, in a curious result, we nd
within the executive branch in presidential systems. that system evaluation in losers is not affected at all by

0261-3794/$ see front matter 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
P. Howell, F. Justwan / Electoral Studies 32 (2013) 334343 335

margin of defeat controlling for other factors, those who satisfaction and their respective partys performance in a
lose by half a percent are indistinguishable in terms of their given election.
levels of democratic system support as compared to those To add to this literature, we include a measure of
who lose in landslides of twenty percent. electoral competitiveness in order to make the emotional
effects more explicit. Simply put, not all winners and
2. Importance of satisfaction with democracy losers are made equal. We expect there to be different
reactions to electoral outcomes depending on whether the
Dating back to the 1960s and Almond and Verbas electoral result is decided by a slim margin as compared to
seminal work, The Civic Culture, voters attitudes toward a landslide, one-sided victory that was never in doubt.
democracy have been a main focus in examinations of Despite this expectation/intuition, the concept of margin
electoral systems. In their volume (and its subsequent of victory or loss and electoral competitiveness has been
revised editions), Almond and Verba unpack their theory of little studied in the context of the satisfaction with de-
civic culture in to many component parts. One group of mocracy literature thus our basic research question: How
such components includes the concept of voter satisfaction does the relative experience of electoral competition
with political output as a measure of system performance following a recent election affect the reported satisfaction
(1963; 192). Over time and through further study, this with democracy in both winners and losers?
survey question has evolved into to a more generalized
measure that appears in some variation on many national 3. Satisfaction with democracy as a dependent
and cross-national surveys: voter satisfaction with variable
Satisfaction with democracy lies at the intersection be- Recent scholarship in the eld of comparative politics
tween diffuse support for the nation state and democratic has devoted a considerable amount of attention to the issue
principles and specic support for political actors and state of satisfaction with democracy. System support has been
institutions (Norris, 1999; 10). It is crucial to un- shown to be inuenced by a variety of different factors
derstandings of electoral politics because it is intrinsically including exposure to media coverage (Banducci and Karp,
related to the core stability and legitimacy of political sys- 2003), regime performance (e.g. Lipset, 1994; Weatherford,
tems (Anderson and Guillory, 1997; Anderson and 1987), and ideological proximity to the government (Ezrow
Tverdova, 2001; Blais and Glineau, 2007; Henderson, and Xezonakis, 2011). In addition to that, a large body of
2008). Whether or not the electorate is satised with the literature has shown that election outcomes inuence in-
way democracy works can ultimately play a role in the dividuals democratic satisfaction. More specically, voters
vulnerability for a government. The level of support given who supported winning parties in elections display higher
to a particular system is of especial import in the Post-Cold levels of system support than their counterparts who
War era of democratization, beginning with Huntingtons backed non-victorious parties (Anderson et al., 2005;
Third Wave (1991). For newer democracies, if system sup- Anderson and Guillory, 1997; Anderson and Tverdova,
port dips too low, it is possible that these states then run 2001; Bowler and Donovan, 2002; Clarke and Kornberg,
the risk of backsliding out of democracy. 1992; Henderson, 2008; Listhaug et al., 2009; Norris, 1999).
Starting in earnest with Anderson and Guillory (1997), The concrete causal mechanism behind the winner/
electoral studies over the past decade have begun to loser gap in democratic satisfaction is not uncovered yet.
examine the vagaries of what might affect levels of system Two schools of thought debate about this issue, however
satisfaction, mostly through the use of direct post-election these different approaches have to be considered as com-
surveys. The most robust nding coming from this vein of plementary and not mutually exclusive. On one side of the
literature is that a major factor in satisfaction is simply debate, some scholars advocate a rational-choice explana-
whether or not the voter identied with the winning party. tion. The foundation for this explanation is that satisfaction
If voters self-identify as winners, then they are much more for winners is higher because winners know that they will
likely to also report high levels of satisfaction with the achieve more of their preferred policies. The work of
democratic process in general. Indeed, in examining many Anderson and Guillory (1997) as well as Wells and
different voter assessments of regime efcacy including Krieckhaus (2006) t into this category. These authors not
satisfaction winning is associated with a greater positive only uncover a winner/loser gap with regards to demo-
outlook and higher level of system support on almost every cratic satisfaction, but they also provide indirect evidence
count (Singh et al., 2011). Out of all the potential measures for the rational-choice explanation behind this nding:
of support of a political system offered in survey data, one according to the studies mentioned above, the difference in
thing that makes satisfaction a particularly interesting system support between winners and losers is bigger in
concept for examination is that it lies at the intersection majoritarian systems than in consensual systems.
between psychology and institutions. On the one hand, Anderson and Guillory (1997; 68) argue that this is because
satisfaction is in and of itself an emotional value; but at winning and losing mean different things in different
the same time, within these surveys the satisfaction ques- political systems and especially consensual systems are
tion is also intended to be an assessment of how an elec- designed to protect democratic minorities from unre-
toral system is performing from the point of view of the strained rule by the majority. According to this logic, losers
voter-respondent. Thus, the aim of this paper is to pro- in consensual systems get more of their preferred policies
vide an alternative psychological/emotional understanding than losers in majoritarian systems. This paper ts within
of the causal mechanism between reported levels of voter the Anderson and Guillory framework by taking this
336 P. Howell, F. Justwan / Electoral Studies 32 (2013) 334343

nding that the gap in satisfaction between winners and because in these systems the concept margin of victory
losers is wider in majoritarian elections and asking: Is simply does not exist as a predictor of whether a party wins
electoral competition one factor that can motivate and or loses. In coalition governments, it is possible for a small
cause variance in this observed gap within presidential and party to receive only ve percent of the vote, yet still
majoritarian elections? technically win an election through its inclusion in a
Even beyond Anderson and Guillorys work, more in- coalitional government.3
direct evidence for a rational-choice explanation of the Second, a margin-centric hypothesis can contribute to
winner/loser gap in democratic satisfaction is provided by the debate between psychological explanations and
Anderson and LoTempio (2002) as well as Henderson rational-choice approaches. The latter would predict that
(2008). These authors demonstrate that winning at the the victory margin between two executive candidates
national level signicantly inuences an individuals should not affect democratic satisfaction since the distance
assessment of the political system. Meanwhile, the between two candidates has no inuence on how much of
outcome of elections at the local level, which by itself has their preferred policies each voter gets. In single-party
arguably less direct impact on a voters life, plays no major governments, the losing side is locked out of the execu-
role. Furthermore, Singh et al. (2012; 206) demonstrate tive regardless of whether they lost by one or thirty per-
that voters react rst and foremost on the basis of who centage points. If the rational-choice approach proves
gets to form the government. People feel better if their unsatisfactory, then the theory and results presented in our
party is in power even if it had lost votes and seats. analysis add credence to political psychology as a way to
However, the argument that an individuals degree of explain the winner/loser gap in democratic satisfaction in
regime support depends exclusively on the election these presidential and majoritarian elections.
outcome at the national level is not uncontested in the
literature. Blais and Glineau (2007) argue that election
results in the local constituency matter as much as the 4. A theory of electoral competition and satisfaction
national outcome.
Even with these ndings, other scholars have pointed As mentioned above, one key problem that emerges
out that rational-choice explanations do not tell the full from the prior literature is the simple fact that there are
story. On this side of the debate, several studies (e.g. many different forms of winning, often dened by the level
Campbell et al., 1960) have shown that psychological fac- of competition nail-biters, blowouts, and everything in
tors are also important predictors of general voter behavior. between. A winning partys margin of victory provides the
With regards to the relationship between vote choice and closest possible post-hoc approximation to an elections
democratic satisfaction, it is important to consider that competitiveness in presidential and majoritarian systems,
human beings simply like to win (Thaler, 1994) since this but how might margin affect evaluations of satisfaction
can invoke a variety of positive emotions (Singh et al., with democracy? Little has been theorized about this
2012). Empirical evidence for the existence of a psycho- relationship before in the eld. Anderson and LoTempio
logical mechanism with regards to the winner/loser gap in (2002; 349) speculate that the experience of winning
democratic satisfaction is slowly emerging. Singh et al. and losing has the most pronounced impact on peoples
(2012) demonstrate that winning at the subnational level attitudes when winners and losers are clearly dened.
increases satisfaction at the national level which does not Thus, they reason that close elections result in smaller ef-
make sense from a purely utilitarian point of view. Simi- fects of winning on democratic satisfaction, but they do not
larly, in their work, Craig et al. (2006) also point to cognitive provide an empirical analysis of the relationship between
and psychological factors as possible explanations for the victory margin and system support to examine their theory.
winner/loser gap in democratic satisfaction. In examining Meanwhile, empirical studies that have attempted to
the U.S. presidential election in 2000, the authors conclude include victory margins as an independent variable have
that citizens interpretation of the election outcome, i.e. seen mixed results. Brunell and Buchler (2009) look at
whether it constituted a true mandate or not, explain the elections in the U.S. and conclude that as a congressional
difference in system support for winners and losers. election becomes less competitive, the average voter is
Our research seeks to engage the existing literature on more likely to approve of the incumbent, and also that
vote choice and satisfaction with democracy in two ways. victory margin does not affect approval ratings of Congress
First, while most of the existing scholarship on the impact and feelings about efcacy. While this work provides one
of elections on system support focuses on the win/lose possible take on the relationship between victory margin
dichotomy across all typologies, we specically focus on and democratic satisfaction, the authors only looked at the
elections that lead to single-party control of the executive U.S. and they only examined very specic indicators of
branch. Specically, we look at elections in (1) presidential democratic satisfaction. Singh et al. (2011) also analyze the
systems and (2) majoritarian systems that led to single- relationship between victory margin and satisfaction,
party governments. In these cases, winning alone perhaps although in a cross-national perspective by using survey
does not provide a complete picture of satisfaction with
democracy: the victory margin between the winning and
losing parties can also have a signicant effect on an in- It is for this reason that systems and elections resulting in coalition
governments are excluded from this analysis. This is not to say that it
dividuals degree of system support. By contrast, elections would be impossible to measure an impact of margin in these systems,
that produce coalitions are excluded from this analysis, but it would require a wholly different test than that presented here for
including all forms of proportional representation. This is presidential and majoritarian elections with singular-party control.
P. Howell, F. Justwan / Electoral Studies 32 (2013) 334343 337

data from four different countries. They conclude that an referendum on the incumbent party has found more
elections competitiveness does not systematically inu- empirical support in the literature (Aarts and Thomassen,
ence satisfaction with democracy. However, this study 2008). These critiques weaken the possible institutional
simply assumes a direct relationship between victory mandate hypothesis that the winner/loser gap in satisfac-
margin and system support. Studies such as these have not tion will increase as electoral margins increase. Thus, in
taken into account that winners and losers might view search of a more promising basis for a hypothesis of elec-
competitiveness and vote tallies in elections very differ- toral competition and democratic satisfaction, we turn to
ently, despite the presence of theories that claim exactly the eld of political psychology, which has also addressed
such a difference exists. different effects between winners and losers following an
Two theoretical traditions can offer insight and distinct election.
hypotheses on how winners and losers might view the To understand how voters evaluate results from elec-
same election result in different ways. The rst tradition tions, rst an understanding must be reached of how their
nds root in an institutional argument about the role of original choices between parties and candidates might be
elections in deciding policy. Here, elections are assumed to inuenced by the degree of competition in a given election.
convey the strength of popular support for a partys or In the 1980s and 1990s, a new vein of research came to
candidates goals, whereby larger margins imply a stronger prominence in political psychology examining the role of
policy mandate for the winning party. The second tradition anxiety in decision making (Marcus and MacKuen, 1993); in
pulls more from a political psychology perspective. The their 1993 piece, Marcus and MacKuen connect anxiety to a
eld of neuropsychology has found that winning and losing theory of voter information-processing. As this research on
activate different psychological effects in individuals (Zalla the connection between anxiety and voter decision making
et al., 2000). Extending these ndings in to politics, con- developed over the ensuing decade, it came to be called
nections can be made with the literature on anxiety and affective intelligence (Marcus et al., 2000). Central to the
voter engagement in order to produce a theory that would theory of affective intelligence is an idea of separate
predict the opposite from the institutional argument. From thought processes a surveillance system divides mental
this perspective, large margins are more likely to discon- actions between those that can be accomplished with ease
nect winners and losers from results, and the largest gap in through routine and without reection, versus those ac-
democratic satisfaction between the two sides would be tions that require conscious thought and a more evaluative
found when electoral margins are close. After rst delin- approach. Often, the latter systems of thought and reec-
eating the underlying theories behind the institutional and tion are sparked by mental discomfort caused by anxiety
psychological traditions, we then proceed to empirically (Marcus et al., 2000; 60). There are strong reasons to
separate winners and losers in order to test which theory believe that executive elections in presidential and major-
most closely resembles voter responses. itarian systems leading to single-party executive branches
Under institutional approaches, elections in presidential can cause these types of emotional responses. First, the
and majoritarian systems are typically viewed through one stakes are very high in these elections. Since only one
of two theoretical perspectives: mandate or accountability candidate and/or party can win, supporters of a particular
(Aarts and Thomassen, 2008). Mandate theory nds its contender know that they will not be represented at the
basis in the theoretical literature that argues that a major highest levels if their preferred candidate/party loses.
role of elections lies in citizens looking ahead to choose Second, in presidential and majoritarian systems, the
future governments (Powell, 2000). Mandate theory can be campaigns are often very personalized and followed by
further divided between government and median va- media coverage using the horse-race frame (Strmbck and
rieties, depending on whether the model is looking at clear Dimitrova, 2006). The focus on tracking and delineating
majorities or which party captures the median voter electoral options leads to clearly pronounced differences
(McDonald and Budge, 2005). Regardless, in either form the between the choices that each voter faces.
theory still relies on election results as a deciding factor. Close electoral competition in presidential and majori-
Larger electoral margins would then be expected to reect tarian countries should therefore spark high levels of anx-
a greater chance by the winning party to have captured the iety. Despite its emotional roots, the presence of anxiety
necessary voters preferences. Thus, as margin increases, does not supersede the notion of a rational voter, rather, it
the expectation would be that a voter for the winning party acts instead as a triggering mechanism when the elec-
will also report higher levels of satisfaction, if voters are torate becomes anxious, its behavior is more likely to
primarily concerned with institutional returns from their resemble the classic rational voter model of Downs (1957),
victory. by evaluating and weighing all options. Until reaching that
However, mandate theory is not without its criticisms. critical point of anxiety that forces more careful consider-
First and foremost, it is highly sensitive to typologies of ation, voters are likely to rely more on old partisan habits
electoral systems median mandate theory is best suited to (Marcus et al., 2000; 62).
proportional representation systems built with coalitions, This argument is consistent with other scholarly work
while the government mandate variety is better suited to that has found that the closer an election is, the more
majoritarian systems, and yet majoritarian elections often cognitively engaged in the campaigns and process the
only produce pluralities and not true majorities (as the electorate becomes (Kam and Utych, 2011). This greater
theory calls for). In addition, the competing vision of engagement means that more time and resources will be
majoritarian elections via accountability theory where devoted to campaigns where the outcome is in doubt as
voter evaluations and vote choices are more of a compared to those where one side is all-but-ensured
338 P. Howell, F. Justwan / Electoral Studies 32 (2013) 334343

Table 1
Descriptive statistics of winner/loser satisfaction by election.

Country Election year Electoral Number of % Reporting Country Election year Electoral Number of % Reporting
Electoral margin outcome respondents satised with Electoral margin outcome respondents satised with
between top two democracy between top two democracy
nishing parties nishing parties
Brazil 2002 Winners 1247 28.87 United Kingdom 1997 Winners 1123 72.13
Margin 23.20 Losers 562 32.21 Margin 12.60 Losers 1139 80.60
Brazil 2010 Winners 836 73.33 United Kingdom 2001 Winners 985 80.51
Margin 12.10 Losers 519 48.94 Margin 9.00 Losers 1019 58.88
Canada 1997 Winners 485 86.39 United Kingdom 2005 Winners 262 84.73
Margin 19.10 Losers 901 67.81 Margin 2.91 Losers 319 68.65
Mexico 2000 Winners 712 72.33 United States 1996 Winners 592 85.47
Margin 6.40 Losers 570 59.47 Margin 8.50 Losers 514 82.88
Mexico 2006 Winners 520 70.19 United States 2000 Winners 484 85.54
Margin 0.56 Losers 688 32.41 Margin 0.50 Losers 537 84.92
Philippines 2004 Winners 527 67.55 United States 2004 Winners 410 96.10
Margin 3.48 Losers 446 42.83 Margin 2.46 Losers 401 61.85
Taiwan 1996 Winners 501 59.88 United States 2008 Winners 1002 88.92
Margin 32.90 Losers 300 28.00 Margin 7.20 Losers 504 79.56
Taiwan 2004 Winners 653 69.22 Uruguay 2004 Winners 519 71.87
Margin 0.22 Losers 570 39.30 Margin 16.15 Losers 276 73.91
Taiwan 2008 Winners 838 55.69 Uruguay 2009 Winners 526 77.76
Margin 16.90 Losers 508 50.20 Margin 8.88 Losers 293 64.85

victory a fact that might be amplied by increased media conceivable that at the extreme high margins of a blowout
coverage of the campaign. These possible effects imply that victory, both winners and losers will become indistin-
evaluating presidential and majoritarian elections on a guishable from each other in reported satisfaction and
scale of competitiveness will offer an excellent test of meet in a middle ground of indifference (as perhaps indi-
emotional theories, with the expectation that the elec- cated in the Brazilian 2002 election in Table 1). Clearly
torate will be more emotionally invested in a close race, as stated, the hypotheses here are as follows:
opposed to landslide elections. Using voter anxiety and
H1. As the margin between winning and losing parties
affective intelligence as motivating micro-foundations for
approaches zero, the probability of reported satisfaction
our theory, close presidential and majoritarian elections
will increase for winners.
should then most accurately resemble the rational calcu-
lation of the all-or-nothing win/lose dichotomy, and with H2. As the margin between winning and losing parties
weaker effects at large, noncompetitive margins. approaches zero, the probability of reported satisfaction
Seizing on these emotional theories of competition, we will decrease for losers.
hypothesize that the emotional reaction to presidential and
majoritarian election outcomes will be most intense at
closer margins. Taking the previous ndings that winners 5. Data and Methodology
are more satised than losers, we hypothesize a polarizing
effect winners will be most satised by a close victory, The theories of electoral competition presented above
and losers most dissatised by a close loss. As can be seen exist on the individual level of analysis. Thus, to test our
in Table 1,4 one possible illustrative case of this is the dif- theory of individual responses to electoral stimuli we rely
ference between the two Mexican elections. In the 2006 on cross-national surveys, particularly the Comparative
presidential election, where winners and losers were Study of Electoral Systems (CSES) project. This dataset
separated by a mere 0.56 percentage point (and relied on a comprises post-election surveys in over 50 countries that
Supreme Court decision to declare the National Action tap into voters feelings about particular candidates,
Party the winner), a vast 35 percentage point divide ap- parties, the election outcome and the state of democracy in
pears between reported satisfaction in winners and losers. general. We use the CSES to obtain the majority of our data
In the earlier 2000 election, the same National Action Party and set a timeframe for the analysis (19962010).
won by a safer 6.4 percentage point margin, and yet the Our case selection is based on three criteria. First, since
satisfaction gap was only w14 percentage points. Following our theory only makes predictions about satisfaction levels
Marcus and MacKuens body of work, the expectation here in elections in which voters created a single-party execu-
then is that anxiety about closer elections will provoke tive branch, we only look at presidential systems and
more thought and association with the nal outcome, elections in majoritarian parliamentary systems that
while larger gaps will lead to more indifference due to a resulted in single-party governments. As argued above,
lack of involvement. Theoretically then, it is even these types of elections are unique because the stakes are
very high. Since only one candidate or party can get the job
of top executive, supporters of a particular contender know
Brazil 2006 is not recorded in this table as it only appears in Model 1
that they will not be represented at the most important
of the test specications for reasons discussed in the following Data and elected position in the country if their preferred candidate
Methodology section. loses. While it is true that voters in majoritarian systems
P. Howell, F. Justwan / Electoral Studies 32 (2013) 334343 339

can never know with certainty if a particular election will generate an ordinal scale. We therefore dichotomize our
result in a single-party executive branch, modern polling dependent variable: respondents are coded as 1 if they are
techniques allow citizens to get a relatively clear impres- very satised, fairly satised or satised and as 0 if
sion of whether a majority will be achieved or not. We they are not very satised, not at all satised, a little
exclude elections that resulted in minority governments dissatised, or very dissatised with the democratic
since the leading party in these cases relies on the implicit process. This approach is not very problematic since it is in
support of at least one other party in parliament. Further- line with most of the existing research using this survey
more, we exclude elections in semi-presidential systems item (Anderson and LoTempio, 2002; Henderson, 2008).
(specically: France 2002 and Romania 2004) since the Furthermore, the base satisfaction threshold of satised or
presidents in these countries share power with a prime not is analytically more interesting than the internal vari-
minister that is dependent on parliamentary support. This ations between fairly and very satised or between not
institutional arrangement lowers the stakes for voters in very and not at all satised.
these elections and thus makes the application of our For our analysis, a winner is an individual who voted for
theory inappropriate. Second, since our focus on satisfac- the candidate or party that captured the executive branch
tion with democracy is only justied in liberal democracies, of the government. In countries that used runoff elections,
we examine only those countries that scored above 7 in we only look at the vote choice in this second stage since
the well-known Polity IV dataset in the year of an election.5 winning in the rst round of such an election does not
Third, we only include those surveys that were conducted have any practical signicance. We argue that margin of
after an election in a particular country. This is important victory is a subjective assessment that varies with each
since some questionnaires in the CSES were administered individual and that winners will use the party of the
between the rst round of an election and the runoff. runner-up as their primary reference point. Losers, by
However, since we are interested in voters degrees of contrast, will compare the vote share of the winning party
system support after the runoff, including these observa- to their voted-for party. We therefore code margin of vic-
tions in the dataset could potentially bias our results. tory according to these two simple rules by using the vote
The application of the three criteria mentioned above shares that the parties received according to ofcial elec-
leaves us with a total of fourteen elections from the CSES: tion results. It is important to note here that because
Brazil 2002 and 2010; Canada 1997; Great Britain 1997 and margin is interpreted through a subjective reference point
2005; Mexico 2000 and 2006; Philippines 2004; Taiwan in this analysis, it is in fact measured at the individual level
1996, 2004, and 2008, United States 1996 and 2004; and and can vary within elections depending on the voted-for
Uruguay 2009. In order to increase our number of obser- party selected by respondents. Since we expect different
vations even more, we looked for other post-election sur- effects of victory margin on democratic satisfaction, we also
veys that were conducted between 1996 and 2010. We create an interaction term between those two variables
identied four elections that fullled our selection criteria (winner  margin). Finally, non-voters are also dropped
and included them into our dataset: the American National from the dataset, as individual participation in the electoral
Election Studies (ANES) provided data on the U.S. presi- process can be motivated by several factors, with no
dential elections 2000 and 2008, the British Election Study obvious reference points.
(BES) allowed us to add the polls in Great Britain 2001 and A standard set of control variables to account for de-
the Comparative National Elections Project (CNEP) pro- mographic information of the individual survey re-
vided data on the presidential election in Uruguay 2004. In spondents are also included. Specically, we include
total, the four datasets combined yield a sample of eighteen controls for age,6 and a gender dummy variable (with
elections across eight countries for our main model speci- Male set at 1). Moreover, we take into account re-
cation. Altogether, these cases give an interesting panel spondents education, their employment status,7 and their
cross-section, representing different geographical regions, reported ideological distance from the winning party. The
differing levels of economic development, and with mul- latter is calculated by using a voters ideological self-
tiple time points in six of the eight countries multiple placement on an 11-point scale and the average ideolog-
variations which allow the results to be interpreted as ical placement that a winning party received by survey
generalizable to elections leading to single-party govern- participants.8
ments overall. Altogether, we estimate three different models nested
To measure our dependent variable (satisfaction with within each other to demonstrate the robustness of our
democracy), we take the answers to a standard survey
question that that taps directly into this dimension. In all
countries, respondents were asked how satised they are
with the way democracy works in their country. In gen- Since the CSES codes age as a categorical variable for one of the
countries in our analysis (Taiwan 2008), we follow this approach for our
eral, every post-election survey offered four response op- entire dataset. We put respondents from <18 to 29 in category 1, from 30
tions. The concrete wording of those response categories to 39 in category 2, from 40 to 49 in category 3, from 50 to 59 in category
varies from dataset to dataset making it impossible to 4, and from 60 and older in category 5.
To standardize these measures across disparate datasets, education
and employment are both dummy variables as well, with 1s representing
College Degree and Employed respectively.
5 8
The Polity IV Project categorizes countries into autocracies and Since not all of the datasets from which we drew data use the same
democracies, depending on regime characteristics measured on a 21 11-point ideology scale, we constrained the ideology measures for
point scale (ranging from 10 to 10). Uruguay 2004 and United States 2000 and 2008 to have the same range.
340 P. Howell, F. Justwan / Electoral Studies 32 (2013) 334343

Table 2 6. Results
Regression results.

Coefcient (standard error) Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 The results in Table 2 show mixed support for our po-
Logistic regression on satisfaction (0/1) litical psychology hypotheses, with strong support for H1,
Voted for winner (0/1) 1.137*** 1.300*** 1.201*** but null results for H2 across all three model specications.
(0.292) (0.270) (0.284) It is possible to breakdown these results further: First and
Margin of victory 0.007 0.001 0.000
foremost, in terms of coefcient values, the main result is
(0.014) (0.012) (0.007)
Winner  Margin 0.054** 0.066*** 0.049** that we nd signicant evidence to conrm the ndings of
(0.025) (0.024) (0.021) previous scholarship that winning matters. As a control
Age 0.179*** 0.087*** variable in the logit regressions, the dichotomous variable
(0.023) (0.028) for winners (at victory margins approaching zero) is sig-
Gender (male 1) 0.098** 0.161***
(0.046) (0.045)
nicant at the p < 0.01 level in a two-tailed test. The winner
Education 0.427*** 0.186** coefcient also accounts for the largest effect in all three
(0.136) (0.094) models, making it both substantively and statistically
Employment 0.470*** 0.470*** signicant.
(0.110) (0.104)
At the same time, taken alone, the margin variable of
Ideological distance 0.055* 0.034**
(0.031) (0.013) interest fails to achieve statistical signicance and is
consistently indistinguishable from zero. This does not tell
Country dummy variablesa
Canada 1.359***
the whole story, however, as we test our main hypotheses
(0.222) by including an interaction term in order to examine con-
Mexico 0.223 ditional effects of victory margin across winners and losers.
(0.502) When the respondent is a non-winner then the base co-
Philippines 0.091
efcient for margin of victory is the correct value to eval-
Taiwan 0.152 uate; however, when the respondent is a winner then the
(0.372) interaction term must be included in order to evaluate
United Kingdom 1.030** coefcients. As can be seen in Table 2, the interaction term
(0.411) is signicant at the p < 0.05 level and this result is robust to
United States 1.486***
different model specications.10 In other words, this sup-
Uruguay 1.075*** ports the base foundation of our theory that the effect of
(0.372) margin of victory on satisfaction with democracy is con-
Constant 0.482 0.118 0.611 ditional on winning or losing in presidential and majori-
(0.308) (0.294) (0.393)
tarian elections.
Model 1: N 22,947; Log Likelihood 14,291.65; AIC 28,591.29; While statistically signicant, the interaction term also
BIC 28,623.46 reveals that in substance the effect of margin on system
Model 2: N 16,657; Log Likelihood 10,040.60; AIC 20,099.20;
support is almost entirely one-sided. The fully specied
BIC 20,168.69
Model 3: N 16,657; Log Likelihood 9580.759; AIC 19,189.52; Model 3, including country dummy variables, shows that
BIC 19,297.61 the effect of margin of victory on satisfaction is indistin-
* p  0.10, ** p  0.05, *** p  0.01.
guishable from zero for losers (in the base margin value),
Brazil omitted as base category. but for winners (the interaction term value) every one unit
increase in margin of victory decreases the log-odds of
satisfaction by roughly 0.04. In assessing the two hypoth-
main ndings independent of the included control vari-
eses then, these results indicate that we can reject the null
ables. Model 1 includes only our main variables of interest:
for H1 and conclude that there is in fact a negative rela-
winner, victory margin and the interaction term of those
tionship on satisfaction with democracy for every per-
two variables. Model 2 adds the demographic control var-
centage point increase in margin of victory for winners. At
iables described above. Finally, in Model 3 we also add
the same time, without statistical signicance for the
dummy variables for the countries in the dataset. We
constitutive margin coefcient, there is no evidence of a
cluster the standard errors by election and estimate a lo-
relationship between satisfaction and margin for electoral
gistic regression. Depending on the model specication,
losers, so we fail to reject the null for H2.
our dataset consists of either 22,947 or 16,657 individual
An easy way of observing and interpreting this separate
respondent observations, with the difference occurring due
effect can be seen in Fig. 1. This graph captures the pre-
to missing values from the demographic control variables.9
dicted probabilities of whether or not a respondent is ex-
The results of these specications are presented in Table 2
pected to report satisfaction with democracy based on
and analyzed in the following section.
margin of victory, while holding all demographic control
variables constant.11 As can be seen, when margin of

9 10
Most notably, the specication absent controls also includes the The linear combination of the interaction term with margin of victory
Brazil 2006 election from the CSES. This election is dropped from Models also produces a statistically signicant result.
2 and 3, due to a lack of the employment variable within this election Fig. 1 graphs the data from Model 2 in Table 2, absent country
survey. dummies.
P. Howell, F. Justwan / Electoral Studies 32 (2013) 334343 341

produce signicant results at the p < 0.05 level at a mini-

mum, and all are signed in intuitive directions.

7. Discussion

In the current literature, electoral margin is rarely

treated as a subjective focal point, taking into account
different interpretations of its effect in the opinions of
winners and losers. In correcting for this oversight, we nd
strong statistical evidence that there is indeed a distinction
between winner and loser viewpoints on margins of vic-
tory. In close elections, the gap in system satisfaction is at
its widest, while in landslide elections there is a trend to-
ward convergence in each sides reported satisfaction
levels. Based on the descriptive statistics of aggregate voter
opinions in each election reported in Table 1 and the psy-
chological literature on affective intelligence, we hypothe-
Fig. 1. Predicted probabilities of satisfaction with democracy. sized that this was a reective effect that as margins
approached zero, then winner satisfaction with democracy
would increase and likewise, there would be an inverse
victory is near zero, there is a vast difference for predicted decrease in losing parties satisfaction. However, the sta-
probability of satisfaction in winners and losers. These are tistical evidence points to loser satisfaction levels adhering
elections where less than a percentage point separate to a roughly constant rate and that the observed gap is
winners from losers, and yet that miniscule divide in instead generated by the positive satisfaction increase of
electoral returns produces an extreme division across winning alone. The near convergence is also one-sided, and
winner and loser satisfaction, with an almost 0.25 separa- owes mostly to a decaying rate of satisfaction for winners
tion in the predicted probability between the two sides. as the margins of their victories grow larger.
The graph also shows that despite this initial gulf between This observed effect in the satisfaction of winners, and
winner and loser satisfaction, there is in fact convergence in its subsequent decay, can be explained by our initial theory.
reported satisfaction as the electoral margin increases but Close elections provide more dramatic results precisely
contrary to the expectations of H2, this is almost exclusively because their outcome is in doubt. A neck-and-neck race
due to a fall in winners satisfaction rather than movement between candidates over the course of a campaign un-
in losers responses.12 doubtedly builds anxiety in voters, owing to the uncer-
The effects presented in Models 1, 2 and 3 prove to be tainty that their partys candidate will be the one able to
very robust. Excluding certain cases that might be consid- capture the executive branch come Election Day. The
ered outliers (such as Taiwan 1996), as well as models greater the anxiety, then also the greater the psychic relief
including additional possibly relevant variables yielded when their chosen candidate emerges the victor once all
similar results.13 As indicated above, we also estimate one votes are tallied. This addition of emotional processing of
model with country dummies, since we analyze individual information to the analysis can account for the large
responses from multiple distinct pools of observations. satisfaction gap in parties sharing the same (obviously
Holding Brazil as a reference point, the coefcients for the functioning) democratic institutions and who are only
other seven countries can be found in Table 2 (Model 3). separated by slim margins of one percent or less in the
Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Uruguay electoral returns.
are all signicant at p < 0.01 and the difference in values The steady rate of loser satisfaction across the range of
does indicate some measure of country-level variance in the electoral margins is more difcult to explain. The emotional
constant. Meanwhile, all of the other control variables also and psychic benets of winning elections existing in the
literature match the ndings of this paper well, but many
standard psychological/decision-making theories, such as
A curiosity from our results is also made evident in the graphing of
prospect theory (Kahneman and Tversky, 1979), argue that
the predicted probabilities: There is admittedly little theoretical justi-
cation for the effect occurring at high electoral margins, where the re- those in loss frames should experience greater negative
ported satisfaction for winners appears to actually dip below that of reactions as the size of losses increase and yet our results
losers. We cannot infer much into these nonintuitive ndings, beyond the indicate a story closer to that of loser indifference to the
fact that the effect still existed when elections with the highest margins size of their electoral loss. Given the strong role emotion
were excluded, perhaps implying the dip below losers is more of a
and psychology seem to play on satisfaction for the win-
product of the estimation of the predicted values driven by the much
more numerous sub-twenty percent margins. ning half of the electorate, we believe that there is likely a
In the latter case, two notable variables also tested were voter in- psychological explanation for the lack of a response in
formation and a count variable index of executive powers for a given losers as well. So what other theories might possibly ac-
country at the time of the election. These variables were dropped from count for this effect?
the specication presented here in order to preserve some parsimony, but
in both cases these coefcients were non-signicant and had near zero
One potential explanation can be found in the vein of
impact on the coefcients of the other variables, implying an almost total literature on defensive pessimism and rationalization of
null effect. choices in voters (Craig et al., 2006; Kay et al., 2002; Norem
342 P. Howell, F. Justwan / Electoral Studies 32 (2013) 334343

and Cantor, 1986; Rahn et al., 1994; Tykocinski et al., 2002). effects on both winners and losers. While the ndings may
In short, voters experiencing the potential for negative not have t perfectly both of our original reective hy-
setbacks will engage in rationalization routines in order to potheses, the strong effect of small margins on winners
minimize the possible psychological dissonance of sup- satisfactorily answers many questions raised in the litera-
porting a losing candidate/party. This process can occur in ture and this research even if the null effect for losers
one of two ways. First, supporters afraid of an imminent simultaneously raises many more new questions of
loss may embark on defensive pessimism or downgrade the interest.
expectations of victory prior to an election (Kay et al., 2002;
Norem and Cantor, 1986). This a priori, anticipatory Acknowledgements
rationalization process also has the benet of linking well
with the anxiety-based theories already used, as Norem We would like to acknowledge the faculty of the Uni-
and Cantor also rely on anxiety as an explanatory factor for versity of Georgia for their support. In particular, this
their thesis of defensive pessimism (1986; 1208). The sec- project would not have existed if not for the guidance of
ond manner in which rationalizations may play a role is Shane Singh. In addition, we thank Ryan Bakker, Jeffrey
through a more post hoc mechanism, as survey respondents Berejikian, James Monogan, Keith Dougherty, and the many
may overweight their opinion that their loss was a foregone others who provided feedback and advice on the paper.
conclusion after the fact again to minimize dissonance Finally, we extend especial gratitude to our colleagues
(Rahn et al., 1994; Tykocinski et al., 2002). In either case, Sarah Fisher and Kayce Mobley, who assisted us on a similar
given the data available, it is impossible to empirically earlier project when we rst began our inquiries into this
disentangle and test if the observed null effect is due to topic.
voters rationalizing their responses.
A more denitive statement on the mechanism that
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