Chronic Losers and Democracy

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Principal investigators:

Todd Donovan

Western Washington University



Shaun Bowler

University of California, Riverside



Sample size: 702

Field period: 10/2003-11/2003


We examine how people reason about political institutions. We test if citizens who support losing candidates are less satisfied with how democracy works and more supportive of proposals to change electoral rules. Drawing from psychology and economics, we propose that losers are less sensitive to risks of change than winners. Support for change among winners is expected to decline when winners are exposed to risks. Support for change among losers is expected to decline less when losers are exposed to risk. We expect that considerations of winning and losing in the electoral arena will affect opinions about how well democracy works. The study provides a rare opportunity to measure how citizens perceive the frequency that they win and lose in the electoral arena, and the effects of such perceptions.


1) Self-perceived electoral losers are more supportive of changing election rules than electoral winners.
2) Framing a proposal for electoral change as a risk (or loss) decreases support for change among winners.
3) Framing a proposal for electoral change as a risk (or loss) decreases support for change among losers.
4) The effect of framing a proposal as a risk (or loss) is weaker among losers than winners.
5) Considerations of winning and losing increase satisfaction with democracy among self-perceived winners.
6) Considerations of winning and losing decrease satisfaction with democracy among self-perceived losers.

Hypotheses 2, 3 & 4 were tested using a CATI survey platform that randomly assigned versions of electoral reform proposals to respondents. Respondents were randomly assigned a risky or non-risky version of four different proposals for electoral reform. Additional questions were used to identify perceptions of how often candidates the respondent supported won or lost. Hypotheses 5 & 6 were tested using the CATI platform to randomly alter the placement of a question about satisfaction with democracy. Half the sample received the question prior to being asked to reflect on how often their candidates won or lost. The other half received the satisfaction question after being asked to reflect on how often their candidates won or lost.


Support for direct election of the president
Support for a national initiative process
Support for proportional representation
Support for term limits for Congress
Satisfaction with democracy

Summary of Results

We found that a majority of Americans supported proposals for a national initiative, term limits on Congress, and direct election of the president. A near majority supported PR for congressional elections. Contrary to our hypothesis, losers were not consistently more supportive of electoral reforms than winners. Support for most of these proposals declined when the proposal was framed as a risk. This effect was particularly evident among winners, who were also more satisfied with how democracy works than losers. Satisfaction with democracy eroded slightly among losers prompted to consider the electoral prospects of their candidates, and increased slightly among winners prompted to consider their candidates' prospects. Some of these results are contingent on how we define electoral winners and losers.


We found that a large majority of Americans perceived themselves as winners in the electoral arena. Self-perceived electoral losers were found to be less sensitive to risks associated with electoral change - and at times were risk-seeking. However, very few respondents perceived of themselves as chronic losers in the electoral arena. Thus, despite the apparent popularity of these electoral reform proposals, support for these reforms among winners was rather malleable, and declined when winners were given the risky version of the proposal for change.
We found evidence that losers may not find the risks associated with change as motivating a reason to oppose change. Although appeal to the risks of change may find favor with winners - many of whom initially find something attractive about proposals for reform - appeals to risk may not dissuade losers from wanting change. This suggests that if actual institutional reform proposals do reach the public agenda, even relatively sweeping proposals may be looked on with favor by losers. Prospects for change may then depend upon how many people perceive themselves as losers.


Bowler, Shaun and Todd Donovan. 2004. "Reasoning about Electoral Reform: Experiments with the Psychology of Losing." Paper presented at the American Political Science Association meeting, September 5th. Chicago IL.

Bowler, S. and T. Donovan. 2007. "Reasoning About Institutional Change: Winners, Losers and Support for Electoral Reform." British Journal of Political Science. 37 (July): 455-76.

Donovan, T., J. A. Parry, and S. Bowler. 2005. "O Other, Where Art Thou? Support for Multiparty Politics in the United States." Social Science Quarterly 86:147-159.