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Campaign Perceptions of Electoral Closeness: Uncertainty, Fear and Over-Confidence


In partnership with state Democratic parties and the Obama campaign, the authors surveyed staffers from nearly 200 electoral campaigns in 2012, asking about the expected vote share in their races. Political operatives’ perceptions of closeness can affect how they campaign and represent citizens, but their perceptions may be wildly inaccurate: campaigns may irrationally fear close contests or be unrealistically optimistic. Findings indicate that political operatives are more optimistic than fearful, and that incumbent and higher-office campaigns are more accurate at assessing their chances. While the public may be better served by politicians fearing defeat, campaigns are typically staffed by workers who are over-confident, which may limit the purported benefits of electoral competition.

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Department of Government, Harvard University (email:; Department of Political Science, Yale University (email: The authors thank Michael Young for his outstanding research assistance, and Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies and Center for the Study of American Politics for research support. They also thank Jim St. George and Matt Gillette at NGP-VAN; Ethan Roeder and Ben Fuller at Obama for America; and Ann Fishman at the Association of State Democratic Party Chairs; and Drew Linzer for sharing his data on presidential polls. They are grateful to John Bullock, Daniel Butler, David Broockman, and Danny Hayes for helpful comments. Data replication sets are available at Online appendices are available at 10.1017/S0007123415000435.

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British Journal of Political Science
  • ISSN: 0007-1234
  • EISSN: 1469-2112
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-of-political-science
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