The Pain of an Election Loss Is Intense but Short-Lived - Pacific Standard

The Pain of an Election Loss Is Intense but Short-Lived

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Partisans take their party’s defeat personally. But the pain will soon pass.

By Tom Jacobs

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(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Was your party rejected by the voters during Tuesday’s election? If so, here are two things you should know.

  1. You should be prepared to feel some intense emotional distress.
  2. But it should lift pretty much completely by this time next week.

That mixed news comes from a study published last year. Lamar Pierce of Washington University, Todd Rogers of Harvard University, and Jason Snyder of the University of California–Los Angeles tracked Americans’ emotional reactions to the 2012 election, in which President Barack Obama defeated challenger Mitt Romney.

They found evidence of the agony of defeat, but the thrill of victory? Not so much.

“We find that the pain of losing an election is much larger than the joy of winning one,” they write in the Journal of Experimental Political Science. “Elections strongly affect the immediate happiness/sadness of partisan losers, but minimally impact partisan winners.”

Pierce and his colleagues used data from CivicScience polls. Each day during the weeks immediately before and after Election Day 2012 an average of 210 Republicans and 111 Democrats were asked, “How happy are you today — very happy, happy, so-so, unhappy, or very unhappy?”

Remember: The next election is only two years away!

They found “little change in the likelihood that Democrats report being happy,” even after Obama’s re-election win.

However, “immediately following the election, Republicans’ self-reported happiness drops from approximately 60 percent to 30 percent.” That represents “a strong negative effect on the baseline level of happiness” for members of the losing party.

The researchers compared this drop with the effects of other events that caused distress: Specifically, the reaction of parents with children to the mass shooting at Newtown Elementary School, and that of Boston-area residents to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Each of those events did indeed lower happiness levels in those demographics. But the plunge in mood was twice as large for partisans whose party had lost the election.

“People’s social, physical, economic, and mental lives are shaped by their partisan identities, and these social identities are widely and deeply held,” the researchers note. Thanks to this intense personal connection, “winning an election is fine, but losing one is painful, at least in the short run.”

Unhappy people can take heart in that last point. The data suggests that, “over the eight weeks before and after (the 2012 election), happiness is relatively constant, except for Republicans in the week immediately following the election.” This suggests their sense of well-being returned to its normal level within seven days.

So if today it feels like the world is ending, keep in mind that this pain is temporary. And remember: The next election is only two years away!

Wait, now I’m getting depressed.

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