But while the experts I spoke to generally agreed that bandwagon effects exist under certain conditions, they weren’t as certain about the implications of those effects and what, if anything, we should do about it. They even disagreed with themselves at times. “It’s a hard question,” said Neil Malhotra, professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
On the one hand, he told me, you don’t want people making choices in elections based on the kind of herding behavior that leads to a mediocre restaurant having a line down the block for no reason other than that there’s always a line there. Sometimes, popularity isn’t actually a proxy for quality. On the other hand, polls can provide voters with valuable information that allows them to vote strategically, especially in primaries where you’re less likely to know a lot about the candidates. Say you’re a Democratic primary voter who likes both Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg. A poll can help you decide which of those two candidates is most likely to benefit from your vote.
Hartman was also conflicted. “People will use whatever information is available to them,” he said. “In an ideal democracy, we’d like to see people making decisions based on the issue platforms. But we also know that many voters are low-information voters, and they’re going to use whatever cues they can to sort out which candidate to vote for.” Those might be endorsements. It might be party affiliation. They might be poll results. In that sense, bandwagons aren’t exactly good or bad. They just exist.