Unluck of the Draw

A change in the way New Hampshire determines the order of the candidates’ names on ballots may have significantly deterred Barack Obama’s prospects in the state, according to a body of research suggesting that candidates whose names appear first have an advantage. 

Until this year, New Hampshire rotated the order of the candidates from precinct to precinct. An analysis of recent primary elections in New Hampshire by Stanford social psychologist Jon Krosnick , an expert in polling methodology, found that candidates averaged 3 percent better than their overall performance if their names were listed first among the leading candidates. A 2003 paper by a pair of political scientists titled “First Guys Finish First” found similar effects in the 1998 New York primary elections for state offices. 

The new law dictates that New Hampshire now set its ballot order by publicly drawing a random letter of the alphabet to determine where the state will begin listing names alphabetically. (For example, drawing an E would have meant that, among major candidates, John Edwards’ name would be listed first, while Chris Dodd would be last.) This year Z was drawn , effectively starting back at the beginning and listing Joseph Biden first, even though he was no longer in the race. The system applies to every ballot in the state uniformly. 

This method might appear to be equally unfair for everyone, except that candidates’ surnames are not equally distributed throughout the alphabet. On the Democratic side, for example, the major candidates where heavily skewed toward the front of the alphabet. The abecedarian lineup of Biden, Clinton, Dodd, and Edwards meant that the latter three had only a 1-in-26 chance of being first—that is, only if the letter of their last name was drawn (since their last names were adjacent to each other in the alphabet). With Biden out of the race, the advantage effectively fell to Clinton. 

Clinton’s gain was Obama’s loss. As the last candidate alphabetically (not counting the various fringe candidates who were on the ballot), Obama faced a large probability of being last. There are 11 letters after O in the alphabet, all of which would result in Clinton being first among viable candidates still in the race once the alphabet cycled back to the beginning. Add three for the odds of drawing an A, B, or C, and Clinton had a 14-in-26 shot at being first. (That’s 54 percent.)  

One might scoff at the idea that this really matters, but Krosnick insists that the data is there to support it. When I spoke with him last night at about 11 p.m. ET, he said that, had the previous rotation of names been in effect, “my guess is this race would be too close to call.”