Corbyn at polls Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

The Snap Election Trap

British Prime Minister Theresa May's humiliating electoral defeat could have been predicted by a well-established psychological theory. While competent leaders have no fear that their future policies will turn off voters, insecure leaders will try to capitalize on popularity whenever they have it.

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.

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