It’s deja vu all over again. Almost two months ago, the prime minister warned his colleagues that they were facing electoral “annihilation”. This week his tone was more plaintive, but the message was the same.

Last time, the government’s spirits were temporarily revived by a Galaxy poll at the beginning of June that showed — at least according to the commentary — “a stunning fightback.” But other polls have failed to confirm that result, so we’re now back pretty much where we started.

Some have queried why the government’s supporters were so keen to stress that poll, and to give the most favorable possible interpretation on subsequent results. Isn’t it an advantage to be seen to be behind? Doesn’t Australia’s love of the underdog make that the preferred position?

As the last two months have shown, the answer to that is “no”. Being a long way behind creates its own dynamic; desperation and panic set in, while the opponent’s moves benefit from confirmation bias — voters view them through the prism of its supposed ascendancy. Given a choice between underdog effect and bandwagon effect, always go for the latter.

The possibly dodgy Galaxy poll and surrounding hype gave the government some breathing space, which it has failed to use to much effect. Howard now seems to be trying to engender some appreciation of the seriousness of their position, without leading to panic, although so far the only result has been the return of leadership speculation.

Unfortunately for Howard, there’s a fine line between desperation and complacency. As this morning’s Australian blandly reports, “Some cabinet ministers believe the Coalition will go into the election campaign behind in the polls.” The others, presumably, are under the influence of powerful hallucinogens.

That’s not to say that overconfidence can’t be a problem for the frontrunner. If, when the campaign starts, Labor is still showing a lead of more than ten points, expect Kevin Rudd to put on his serious voice and assure everyone that it’s really going to be very close.

If he needs any lessons, he can always turn to Peter Beattie, who has remarkably managed to present himself as vulnerable to defeat in each of his three landslide victories.