- The Washington Times - Monday, November 5, 2012

Forget the speeches and sound bites, the gaffes and ground games, the pundits and polls, the sound and fury emanating from cable news like white-hot plasma from a thousand suns. After an interminable slog of a campaign season, the presidential election could be decided by … the outcomes of a few college football games.

Fact: With the American electorate equally divided between President Obama and Mitt Romney, the fate of the free world is expected to come down to a couple of dozen counties in a handful of swing states — places such as Franklin County, Ohio, home to Ohio State University.

Also fact: According to a study conducted by a trio of economists, home-team college football victories within a 10-day period before Election Day increase the countywide vote share for incumbent politicians by 1.6 percentage points to 3.35 percentage points.

The upshot? Ohio State’s last two football victories — over Penn State on Oct. 27 and Illinois on Saturday — could help Mr. Obama win.

“Our estimates would say that an Ohio State victory would benefit Obama,” said study co-author Neil Malhotra, an associate professor of political economy at Stanford University. “[New York City Mayor] John Lindsay completely attached himself to the 1969 Miracle Mets. People think that helped him. People think [French President] Jacques Chirac was helped by the French team winning the 1998 World Cup.”

As voters, we like to think of ourselves as, well, thoughtful. Careful. Essentially reasonable. Patriotic citizens making important ballot-box decisions based on issues, candidates and political arguments.

If a growing body of behavioral research is right, however, we may be flattering ourselves.

“[We have] an overly optimistic view of how sophisticated voters are,” said Michael Miller, a political scientist at Australian National University who has studied the effects of sports performance on elections. “People don’t decide their votes 100 percent based on meticulous analyses of performance and who should get credit. They often vote with their guts.

“Personal happiness and experience, often having nothing to do with politics, can affect how people vote. Even more interesting, this can happen without voters even being aware of it.”

Electoral college gameday?

Herein, a short list of utterly non-political things social scientists believe can unwittingly influence electoral choices:

• The physical weight and facial appearance of candidates;

• The type of building where votes are cast;

• The physical location of a candidate’s name on ballots;

• Droughts and flooding;

• Sunshine and rain;

• Shark attacks. By which we mean: shark attacks.

Strange but true: In the summer of 1916, four people were killed during a weeklong series of shark attacks along New Jersey’s coastline. A few months later, President Wilson lost as much as 10 percent of his expected vote in the areas where the attacks occurred — never mind that he was a well-known former governor of the state and not an incumbent local lifeguard.

Now consider college football. In a 2010 study titled “Irrelevant Events Affect Voters’ Evaluations of Government Performance,” Mr. Malhotra and co-authors Andrew Healy and Cecilia Mo analyzed wins and losses for 62 NCAA Division I schools over a 44-year period, as well as contemporaneous election results for the counties containing those schools.

Using statistical modeling and a series of tests, the trio found that gridiron performance seems to alter behavior in the voting booth, with the positive relationship between winning football and incumbent vote share going beyond mere correlation.

In a related experiment, they also found that victories by local teams in the 2009 NCAA men’s basketball tournament led people to give President Obama a higher approval rating.

Moreover, the increase in incumbent vote share was larger for surprise college football wins that defied pregame gambling odds — roughly a 2.5 percent bump — and also in areas where the sport is especially popular, with incumbent vote share rising to 3.35 percent.

How significant can the latter number be? Increase Mr. Obama’s 2008 Franklin County vote totals by 3.35 percent — hardly inconceivable, given that Buckeye football is a civic religion in and around Columbus — and he would receive almost 20,000 additional votes.

“We were struck by how big the effect was,” said Ms. Mo, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University. “We asked ourselves, ‘Is this too big?’ But we ran so many tests to undermine our results and couldn’t.”

Other studies show similar effects. German researchers found that positive performance by the nation’s soccer team between 1993 and 2002 resulted in increased popularity for leading candidates from the party in power. Conversely, soccer losses led to less-favorable voter assessments.

Mr. Miller recently analyzed American mayoral elections from 1948 to 2009. He compared ballot-box results with professional football, basketball and baseball performances by teams in the same city.

To his surprise, Mr. Miller found that sports success could result in as much as a 6.1 percentage point boost in an incumbent’s vote share — bigger than the well-established negative effects associated with unemployment rates and larger than the margin of victory for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in 2009. Mr. Miller estimates that 1 in 17 modern, major-city elections ultimately may have been decided by variations in sports records.

Speaking of Mr. Bloomberg: In 2009, the New York Yankees won the World Series. Coincidence?

“The effect is not trivial,” Mr. Miller said. “I estimate that going from none of a city’s teams in the playoffs to all of them in the playoffs boosts a mayor’s chance of re-election by around 13 percent. And the causal chain is pretty intuitive. Winning teams make citizens happier, and happier citizens are more likely to re-elect incumbents.” 

The irrational voter

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?

If elections theoretically can hang on the moods associated with outcomes of football games, is American democracy theoretically a bad idea? Are we doomed to a future resembling the 2006 film “Idiocracy,” in which the nation almost starves because neither the population nor its elected officials realize that agricultural crops should be irrigated with water, as opposed to a sports drink?

College football study co-author Andrew Healy counsels caution.

“These effects are not huge,” said Mr. Healy, an economics professor at Loyola Marymount University. “It’s not necessarily affecting most people, because most people are neither huge college football fans nor so undecided that they’re on a knife’s edge about their electoral choices.

“In any given election, it’s hard to say what kind of impact there is. The larger point is that anything that affects voters’ moods — like Hurricane Sandy — can affect their votes.”

In the college basketball portion of their study, Mr. Healy and his colleagues discovered something interesting: If they explicitly mentioned positive NCAA tournament results before asking people to evaluate Mr. Obama, the approval rating bump effect vanished.

In other words, once people were made aware of the reason for their positive mood, they became less biased by it.

“The good thing with this is that it’s not something we can’t control,” Ms. Mo said. “We can control it. And this isn’t just for political behavior. It’s all kinds of things in your daily life, realizing that if you’re making a big decision, your emotions can spill over.”

Ms. Mo, a self-professed sports fan, laughed.

“Maybe I should tell my students to submit their final exams after a big win,” she said. “They might get better grades. I try to be mindful of that.”

• Patrick Hruby can be reached at phruby@washingtontimes.com.

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