Bernie Sanders has a headline problem. Although the presidential hopeful continues to raise money and climb the polls, much of the journalistic rhetoric surrounding Sanders concerns his seemingly preordained failure.
An article titled “Why Bernie Sanders Can’t Win”, for example, recently ran on The Daily Banter. Then there’s “He Won’t Win, So Why Is Bernie Sanders Running?” in Newsweek, “Why Bernie Sanders, Like Eugene McCarthy, Will Fail” in The Moderate Voice, and “Bernie Sanders: Why the guy who won’t win matters” in the Los Angeles Times. These headlines seem to come even as a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll released Monday shows him only trailing the “presumptive” nominee Hillary Clinton by 7 points.
The irony is that while many journalists are using doomy headlines, the articles themselves tend to be optimistic. But because of how the headlines are worded, that optimism may not translate to readers. According to a study published by the Journal of Experimental Psychology, a misleading headline can cause readers to remember the details in line with the headline better than those that weren’t.
For example, in the Newsweek piece, Ben Railton compares Sanders to other presidential long shots, such as Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson, who “redefined, for a time, campaigns and the presidency and even politics themselves as far beyond partisanship.”
It’s an encouraging message — and one of the piece’s biggest takeaways — but as it follows such a defeatist headline, readers may come away pessimistic rather than inspired.
Compounding this problem is the fact that 6 out of 10 people only read an article’s headline. Rather than just drawing attention to the story, for over 50 percent of people the headline is the story — so even if the story itself is positive, the takeaway will be “Sanders won’t win.”
According to psychology professor Steven Neuberg of Arizona State University, who researches prejudice and social perception, headlines stating Sanders won’t win can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Similar to the way polls can influence public opinion, setting the expectation that Sanders won’t win could cause that to become true.
“Creating this expectation affects two different classes of psychology,” says Neuberg, “The first is the way people think about what it is that [Sanders] does, the way they interpret what comes out of his mouth, and the way they interpret his policies. The second is how people interact with his campaign in terms of, for example, donating money.”
Neuberg’s second point is particularly troubling for Sanders. The degree to which Sanders can impact the election largely depends on how long he stays in the race, which in turn depends on a steady influx of donations and volunteer efforts.
As Neuberg said, “If people think that he doesn’t have a chance to win, then people are going to be less likely to do things like send money.”
In the last four months, Sanders has seen a groundswell of support, and his campaign recently raised $15 million in just two months. But compared to the $2.5 billion Hillary Clinton is slated to raise, the stakes are clear: Sanders has a lot of catching up to do. Money isn’t everything, but it is a political campaign’s primary fuel source, and the more doubts the public has about Sanders’ electability, the fewer donations he’ll see.
“The thing with Bernie Sanders is that these negative expectations have the ability to really inhibit his performance more than positive expectations would have to put him up over the top,” Neuberg explains.
Neuberg is describing a phenomenon called the negativity bias, which posits that our brains are more sensitive to negative input than they are to an equal amount of positive input. This is why we are more likely to remember insults than compliments, and why it’s easier to recall tragic events than happy ones.
Thus, a negative expectation of Sanders can have a greater impact on voting psychology than an equally compelling positive expectation.
But Bernie Sanders isn’t the only candidate whom the media has declared dead in the water, despite promising poll numbers. The much maligned Donald Trump is experiencing a similar rash of negative headlines, such as The Guardian’s “Here’s why Donald Trump won’t win the Republican presidential nomination” and The Daily Beast’s “Why Trump Will Never Make The Ballot.”
However, these negative expectations may not hurt Trump in the same way they’re able to hurt Sanders.
“One difference is that Sanders needs lots of donations to have a chance, and negative expectations slow the flow of money,” Neuberg says. “Trump, however, doesn’t need external dollars (at least for a while), given his own wealth.”
So far, Trump has only raised $1.9 million, but he has an estimated $70 million in liquid assets to fall back on. Sanders has raised over $15 million, but that $15 million is the extent of his cash on hand.
Trump is also leading every candidate in media coverage, so while the prevalence of negative headlines is nothing to sneeze at, it’s easier for those headlines to get lost in the shuffle.
Sanders’ headline problem may be more severe than Trump’s, but the Vermont senator is remaining unwaveringly positive. As he said himself during the Democratic National Committee’s summer meeting: “I think that it’s fair to say that few took our campaign seriously. But a lot has changed in these last few months.”
Josh Kraus is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in many publications, including PandoDaily, SitePoint, and Modern In Denver. You can follow him on Twitter @robocopsmom.