The Sad Losers of Politics

Pierce, Rogers and Snyder find that political partisans are more upset about an election loss than a random sample of parents were upset by the Newtown shootings.

Partisan identity shapes social, mental, economic, and physical life. Using a novel dataset, we
study the well-being consequences of partisan identity by examining the immediate hedonic
impact of electoral loss and victory. We employ a quasi-experimental regression
discontinuity model that minimizes many of the inferential biases associated with surveys.
First, we find that elections strongly affect the well-being of partisan losers (for about a
week), but minimally impact partisan winners. This is consistent with research on the goodbad
hedonic asymmetry. Second, the well-being consequences to partisan losers are intense.
To illustrate, we show that partisans are affected two times more intensely by their party
losing the U.S. Presidential Election than both respondents with children were to the
Newtown Shootings and respondents living in Boston were to the Boston Marathon
Bombings. We discuss implications regarding the centrality of partisan identity to the self
and its well-being, and the methodological contribution.

The authors suggest that the happiness effects of political losses are surprisingly large but they would have done better to compare elections with something people really care about, sports (and here). Sports and politics share the same irrational attachment to a team, the only difference being that the rivalries and hatreds of the former rarely lead to as much death and destruction as the latter.

I feel fortunate to have never been emotionally invested in the winner of any election. It’s all a carnival of buncombe to me–a giant robbers cave experiment for the amusement of those in the know.

Addendum: the authors make one error, on the eve of the election the Iowa political markets were not predicting a close election but a strong Obama win (the authors confuse the vote share market with the winner take all market.)

Hat tip: Paul Kedrosky.


In 1839, Emerson wrote to his friend Carlyle that Daniel Webster had "drunk this rum of Party too so long, that his strong head is soaked, sometimes even like the soft sponges." Indeed partisanship is intoxicating.

The difference is that the chance of a child being shot in school is extremely small, but the consequences of an election can be extremely large - loss of freedom, money, poorer results. When the government was limited, the harm it could inflict was also limited. As government has expanded at all levels, driven by a political class that seeks more and more power, the sphere of freedom has diminished and the potential for harm increased. The Tea Party is a grassroots reaction to this danger, and as such is hated by the political establishment - all the Dems and the Republicans who like their cushy jobs in DC.

Sign from a TP rally outside a McAuliffe Obama fundraiser - "Obama lied, your insurance died".

Pre-Obamacare, 90% of people on the individual market changed plans within two years. And yet now market churn is due to new policy....

Dirty Rattlers!

Got a source for your assertion?

Also, if that were true, the preexisting condition problem is/was self imposed perhaps to a great extent.

I read it on one of the links from an Obamacare-related post on MR last week. Not sure which one.

The internet says it, it must be true!

All snark aside, when the cost of a plan is getting significantly more expensive for worse coverage, that isn't simply "churn". If my plan got better, then I'd be happy to switch. It isn't, so we aren't.

Then again just because he read it on the internet doesn't mean it's not true, either. I believe in epistemic humility as much as anyone, and the internet has led to a proliferation of false facts to go along with a lot of information that is undoubtedly true. Furthermore, many technically correct statements offered are misleading, and lack of knowledge can mislead as easily as false knowledge. At the end of the day, people are just not very good at properly incorporating most abstract "factoids" into their thinking, and end up reinforcing their tribal priors. It seems like more knowledge has created dumber people. I think I'd be better off just ignoring everything I hear and read unless the chain linking a) observation of the fact to b) me hearing about the fact is crystal clear and involves very few steps. Of course this means that many entire types of observations and fields of inquiry would be thrown out.

This report lists lots of numbers showing high churn rates, concluding in part with:

"America's health insurance markets are charac­terized by churning, with tens of millions of indi­viduals gaining and losing their health insurance each year because of changes in their circumstances, often a loss or change of employment. This phe­nomenon of churning characterizes both public-sector and private-sector coverage."

In the body in a section on individual insurance:

"In total, over 45 million people were unable to retain their original type of private insurance coverage for two years."

If the individual market is 50 million, 45/50 is 90%. Dubious in the sense that the churn in who is in the 50 million is high enough to make the data and statistics definitive of pretty much nothing, maybe it should be 90%+/- 125%.

This report should be looked at if you want to get a better understanding how we got "here". Heritage was arguing then for "blowing up" the health insurance market so that "if you like your current insurance, tough, you're going to lose it, but its for your own good, because you will be stuck with insurance you might not like for a long time." McCain's health reform plan was, if not based on, parallelled this Heritage report.

And for those who say "no one thought health reform was needed" this is definitive in making the case for major health reform in March 2008.

And the "great recession" made the churn factor in health insurance worse in 2009 when no one knew whether any health reform law could pass and Republicans were fighting tooth and nail to maintain a perfect century long record of defeating the prospect of universal coverage. I would argue that the metrics in the Heritage report advocating health reform were strengthened by the end of 2009, so any progress no matter how flawed was better than the status quo. And McCain had run promising health reform along with Edwards, Clinton, Obama - none of the candidates who opposed health reform had a chance at all with voters.

'...political partisans are more upset about an election loss than a random sample of parents were upset by the Newtown shootings'

So a group that cares about something is compared to a group which, one would expect, is fairly rational in understanding that random mass murder is not exactly a norm in America.

And it turns out that the group with little reason to be upset is less upset compared to a self-defined group that cares deeply about winning and losing.

The new social sciences - same as the old ones?

And to just add a note concerning the sports comparison - sporting events are much more common (even such annual events as the World Series or Superbowl) than elections. That frequency would undoubtedly lead to a degree of dulling in terms of upset at losing.

Losing a kid is not that upsetting because it's unexpected? what

Well, I'm a parent. And Germany does have the more than occasional school mass murder. Nonetheless, I am not upset at the comparatively rare school events that happen (why yes, this was essentially local news -

Admittedly, I'm not that upset at election results either. But that is because of my background, in part being paid from the DC influence industry in its GMU version - nobody involved in that cares about anything but personal gain, after all. Trust me when I say that Prof. Tabarrok's statement 'I feel fortunate to have never been emotionally invested in the winner of any election.' reads differently to a former member of the GMU PR department than it might to a purportedly libertarian audience.

S. Fred Singer never cared about election resuilts either - but his bank account was of major importance.

Surprised to see prior_approval admitting that random mass murder is not exactly a norm in America.

Good. Unhappy politicians are good politicians. Considering the alternative from history, where they would be found with many daggers in their various body parts, they should be happy.

They're not talking about politicians.

I wonder how this compares to sports fans?

You use the word "irrational" a lot, but what you really mean is "people who don't act the same way I do, and who I don't agree with." I would expect an economics professor to be more precise when using economic terms of art.

1. I'm going to guess that the irrational emotional attachment is a result of the media exploiting what I'd call the "sports rivalry syndrome" in order to increase ratings. I can't think of any other country where only 2 parties so dominate the political system. Everything in the media is presented in a binary form. Can't be a coincidence. Would any political historian care to share their insights?

2. TC maybe giving himself too little credit on his own emotional attachment. After all, didn't he create Tyronne as his partisan mouthpiece in order to avoid the cognitive dissonance that results from holding these views as a respected, rational economist?

Darn it, it's Alex. Strike #2. I'll get him another time.

I'm a mathematician so I don't vote (the Shapley value is negativ). However, losing an election should be more upsetting that a shooting at Newton. To pick a random factoid, 40,000 Americans dies every year from being uninsured. Even a slight change would result in a larger casualty list than Newton. Car deaths are 30,000/ year and the government impacts roads and safety. Deaths from pollution 200,000/year and the EPA has an influence on that. I could go on (food safety, invasions) or talk about the effect of nutrition on early childhood in QALYs or DALYs, but the fact is clear. More people die by changes of government than by mass shooting in the US.
The identifiable victim effect ( strike again.

Notice however that the bias underlying the identifiable victim effect also means that the public is more inclined to express concern over the victims of insufficient government regulation than they are to the victims of excessive regulation. Alex has written about this extensively regarding the pharmaceutical industry and the FDA.

All the deaths you cited would result from inadequate regulation. How about the even more invisible deaths which result, directly and indirectly, from stifling regulatory burdens?

Of course there are deaths from regulation. The FDA would be a good example if we could make a reasonable argument that it's behavior depends on the results of elections. War is an example of death by excessive power which I made. I'm sure there are more examples but it does not impact the result.

The bottom line however is clear. Elections cause more deaths than random shootings in the US. Hence being more upset about election results than shooting or the Boston bombing is rational and the authors of the study are committing a fallacy.

Are people upset about hypothetical policy implications or because their tribe lost? It's possible you're committing the fallacist' fallacy.

I see no contradiction. One identifies with a tribe because one believes the policies are better. Or at least I hope so:) In any case the onus of proof is to show the cause which one claims. I make no claims, but merely point out an alternative explanation...

I think it's inherent in the common usage of tribalism that anything described as tribal is not something that is rationally freely chosen.

I challenge you to show me one pathology report of a person whose cause of death was lack of insurance.

It's hard to believe someone could be that honest, but amazingly they do in fact frame it as if those people would have never died.

I meant DIShonest, d'oh

By your logic nobody ever dies from a car accident since death is inevitable. One can measure early deaths and sins of omission are as deadly as sins of commission.

Survey responses are costless means to cheer for ones favorite side, so the unhappiness reported by losing-partisans is likely exaggerated and not easily compared to survey responses about shootings and bombings.

I strongly dislike partisans who treat politics kike a sports rivalry. But to the extent it ever makes sense to be upset about an event you have essentially no control over, I would think it makes more sense to be upset about an election, which likely has policy implications, than about isolated outburts of violence.

Just cool it with the anti-semitic remarks, okay?

Ha, damn, guess I shouldn't phone-post anything longer than a couple words.

Political partisanship should be in the DSM-5.

Well, as long as they are in the other party.

Indeed; there isn't enough bogative conditions to treat in there already.

"I feel fortunate to have never been emotionally invested in the winner of any election."

Aren't you precious...

As noted above, based on personal experience, S. Fred Singer never cared about election results either. It's about the money, after all.

How sad. Democracy needs people who care about politics to make it work.

When only those with the most extreme points of view are sufficiently motivated to become engaged by the political process we are in trouble.

"When only those with the most extreme points of view are sufficiently motivated to become engaged by the political process we are in trouble"

It could also mean we are in a pretty good place.

Our problem is too much caring, not enough thinking.

Most interesting (ghoulish) would be to look at the feelings of gun control advocates and gun rights activists in the wake of the Newtown shooting and compare it to the elections.

It would only be ghoulish if the gun control people were happy that it happened so they can advance their agenda. But I think most gun control people are sincerely (if irrationally) upset by gun use.

Only when they're 'happy' about it?

I can imagine only a few types of people who are 'happy' about mass murder of innocent children; however, i consider it quite 'ghouish' to turn up the vokume on your political agenda by exploiting the tragedy.

A Vulcan observer should ask, "How would your proposed controls have stopped this massacre?" And "Why does the emotional response of a massacre enter into a rational decision making process?"

Using the shooting as a political wedge is dancing on the graves of the fallen, regardless of how you actually feel about the deaths. The same could be said, under some circumstances, of hastily going to war in the wake of an attack. Politicians tend to find powder for the keg anywhere they can get it. Fortunately, most are flashes in the pan.

It seems though that the gun grabbers got set back by Newtown. Gun sales have been brisk, ammo doesnt stay on the shelves, the California governor vetoed a host of strict gun laws, and Colorado lawmakers lost their jobs.

Humans are coalition builders and have a long history of tribalism. Being a member of a group on the losing end of a power struggle has been a serious thing for most of human history and remains so in many places, for example:

"In this country, the presidency has historically been everything," Kiai says. "You capture the presidency; your people, your constituents get roads, they get water, they get electricity, they get good schools, they get health care."

Does anybody really doubt that the same psychological mechanisms are involved with sports fans and political partisans? And let's face it, the ability to ignore it all, to refuse to join any 'team'...and not risk one's life or even have one's prospects diminished? By historical standards, that is a rare, modern luxury.

“You capture the presidency; your people, your constituents get roads, they get water, they get electricity, they get good schools, they get health care.”

That seals it. The birth certificate was fake. Obama is Kenyan after all.

As Jerry Seinfeld said, you dont root for players, you root for a shirt.

It's only a matter of time.

"The team associations had become a focus for various social and political issues for which the general Byzantine population lacked other forms of outlet. They combined aspects of street gangs and political parties, taking positions on current issues, notably theological problems (a cause of massive, often violent argument in the fifth and sixth centuries) or claimants to the throne. They frequently tried to affect the policy of the emperors by shouting political demands between the races. The imperial forces and guards in the city could not keep order without the cooperation of the circus factions which were in turn backed by the aristocratic families of the city; this included some families who believed they had a more rightful claim to the throne than Justinian."

"Sports and politics share the same irrational attachment to a team, the only difference being that the rivalries and hatreds of the former rarely lead to as much death and destruction as the latter."

"Rarely"? With the possible exception of the soccer war between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969 - memorably covered by Ryszard Kapuscinski - it is hard to think of any instances in which sport rivalries led to as much death and destruction as politics. On second thought, even the soccer war was not really about soccer. So presumably you meant to say "never"?

"I feel fortunate to have never been emotionally invested in the winner of any election."

That would seem rational because the legislatures are made up of people representing ALL the people in their constituency, after all, not just a party faction. We do not have parliamentary government, but representative democracy, so no matter who wins the election, for the candidates Alex votes for, the winner represents Alex.

"It’s all a carnival of buncombe to me–a giant robbers cave experiment for the amusement of those in the know."

But now we see that Alex does not believe in representative democracy being possible. Presumably he prefers a governing elite technocrats independent of the common people. More like China today, or the USSR in the 50s and 60s, or fascist Italy when the trains ran on time??

I was first introduced to approval voting by a Libertarian Party friend who was an idealist before he became more like Alex. Initially my reaction was, not so much "how do I get my favorite to win" but "how do I make sure those bastards lose". But then I realized that the convoluted Constitution was about picking the mature people who would represent all of society, not just their class or other identity, or political ideology. With approval voting, candidates must seek to appeal to the most inclusive set of voters possible, to represent the largest possible set of their constituent interests. Many candidates can "win" by obtaining the approval of more than half the voters, but the candidate who gets 80% will beat the candidate with only 75%. In a very divided political environment, the most partisan candidates might win 45% each, or even 51% each, but lose to the milk-toast centrist who all but the most partisans vote for to avoid the radical they oppose winning, and who thus gets 75% approval, and is thus the best person to represent all the people in his district, county, State, or nation.

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