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The Snap Election Trap

LONDON – The Conservative Party’s loss of its parliamentary majority in the United Kingdom’s snap election has proved political pundits, pollsters, and other prognosticators wrong once again. And, once again, various explanations are being offered for an outcome that few expected.

For example, many have pointed out that Theresa May, the Conservative prime minister, campaigned poorly, and that pollsters’ models underestimated turnout by younger voters. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, managed to appear competent and confident. But these explanations may all be irrelevant, because they focus strictly on how the campaign was conducted.

A better explanation comes from the field of psychology. If pundits had paid attention to a well-established theory about the psychology of snap elections, they could have foreseen the UK election’s outcome. According to research by New York University political scientist Alastair Smith, who has examined British general-election polling data and results dating back to 1945, decisions by prime ministers to hold an early election often backfire.

By holding an election three years ahead of schedule, May seems to have made a serious, though hardly unprecedented, miscalculation. She assumed that the popular support she had when she announced the election would translate into actual votes.

Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson made the same mistake in May 1970, when he tried to take advantage of Labour’s popularity. During the ensuing campaign, Labour’s support collapsed, and the Conservatives ended up winning 330 of 630 seats.

Similarly, in 1997, former French President Jacques Chirac’s decision to call an early parliamentary election resulted in large electoral gains for opposition parties on the left. The same thing happened in Australia in 1998.

In a 2003 study published in the British Journal of Political Science, Smith concluded that popular support for leaders who call early elections tends to wane in the run-up to the vote. His analysis shows that the more popular a leader is when calling an early election, the more likely it is that he or she will lose support during the campaign.

When May called a snap election in April, she was riding so high in the polls that she and the Tories had expected to win in a landslide. But as Smith argues, an early general election is a psychological poker game in which the electorate often calls a leader’s bluff.

May thought that she had a strong hand, because she has more information than the average voter about the country’s future prospects. As prime minister, she has been fully briefed on the UK’s near-term economic conditions and the probable outcome of the Brexit negotiations with the European Union.

But, as Smith’s theory shows, May’s decision to hold an early election tipped her hand to voters, who probably suspected that she was exploiting her informational advantage to reinforce her own political position. To illustrate this point, Smith uses the example of Margaret Thatcher, whose own strategy in the election poker game was the opposite of May’s.

In 1982, Thatcher was at the height of her popularity, having just declared victory in the Falklands War. And while she was not required to call an election before May 1984, she could conceivably have parlayed her enormous popularity into another five-year term. Public opinion polls from 1982 suggest that Thatcher almost surely would have won had she called an election that year. Instead, she waited, despite the risk that future policy failures might erode her popularity.

How Thatcher assessed that risk depended on her own anticipated performance in the coming year. If she was convinced that she would have effective solutions to problems that might emerge, then there was little risk in waiting to be tested at the polls. On the other hand, if Thatcher had not been confident about her policies, she would have had a stronger incentive to cash in on her popularity by calling a snap election, lest she jeopardize her chances down the road.

Thatcher eventually called an election for June 1983. Later, in their autobiographies, she and her chancellor of the exchequer, Nigel Lawson, explained that their timing had been influenced by fears about inflation in the coming year. By calling the election a year early, they avoided a scenario in which worsening inflation would have sapped the Conservatives’ popularity.

The key takeaway is that the timing of elections can reveal how well incumbents expect to perform in the future. All else being equal, competent governments will wait longer before going to the electorate, whereas insecure leaders will try to capitalize on their popularity when they have it.

According to Smith’s theory, any leader who calls a snap election should expect to see his or her support decline, as has just occurred in Britain. May has proved to be a far less confident leader than anyone had expected. She led an uninspiring campaign in which her promise of “strong and stable leadership” rang hollow. But her humiliating defeat could have been predicted before the campaign had even begun.