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Why do voters reward incumbents for politically irrelevant campus glory? Or punish them because Jaws got hungry and a politician like Mr. Wilson was too busy being president to find a bigger boat?

Mr. Malhotra said the answer lies in the power of mood and the ability of nonpolitical events to influence it.

“I remember a few years ago when Stanford beat Southern Cal in a huge upset,” he said. “Totally unexpected. The Trojans were favored by like 25 points. And there was this energy on campus the next week — no matter what was going on, people felt really energized and happy.

“A lot of people at Stanford could give a rat’s [behind] about a football game. But I could see why this would affect even them. That mood was kind of this infectious thing.”

Mood matters, and when it comes to making decisions, it matters in a global way. Mr. Malhotra said psychological research shows that people often transfer emotions in one domain — say, a bad day at the office — toward evaluation and judgment in a completely separate domain, such as how favorably they regard a film they are watching.

In experiments, respondents who say they are sad overestimate the frequency of sad events in their lives; people who feel bad about themselves spend more time learning about the negative characteristics of things they are asked to study; people who get something free are more likely to say that their cars and television sets have performed better and needed fewer repairs.

When undecided voters dump a political incumbent in favor of a challenger, they may be rationally calculating the incumbent’s pros and cons, broken promises and plans for the future.

“Throw the bums out” voters simply may be spooked by a wave of shark attacks. Or bummed by an Ohio State loss. Or frazzled from an awful commute on the way to the polling place.

“Something like that is irrelevant in that people don’t really connect it with a politician,” Ms. Mo said. “But it’s relevant in terms of how people make their decisions: ‘Hey, I’m in a great mood, why change something that isn’t broken?’

“Emotions inform our decisions — there’s a reason we have them — and especially when we don’t have strong preferences or are in an environment where there isn’t enough specific information about candidates and policies.”

Therein lies the rub. In the 1950s and 1960s, a classic pair of social science studies demonstrated that American voters know little about major policy issues, consistently misperceive where candidates stand on those issues and tend to inflate the amount of support their favorite candidates have among members of their preferred social groups. In the 1970s and 1980s, researchers replicated those results. In the 1990s, the book “How Voters Decide” memorably reported that in presidential elections from 1972 to 1992, nearly a third of voters failed to choose candidates who best matched their own policies and philosophical preferences.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that seemingly ridiculous factors can produce significant political results. Like voters being demonstrably biased against heavyset or facially unattractive candidates.

Researchers consistently have shown that candidates who have their names listed closer to the top or front of a ballot do better than those whose names come later. Other studies have found that proposed bans on same-sex marriage have received more support from voters whose polls were in churches, and that Arizona voters who cast their ballots at polls in schools were more likely to support increased education funding than people who voted in other locations.

“In some ways, none of this is surprising,” Mr. Malhotra said. “Voting is a high-stakes thing for society as a whole. But as your personal choice, it’s not that high of stakes. No one is watching you. It’s secret. So even if you are not doing a good job of reading up on issues or candidates, no one will know.” 

Democracy’s downfall?

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