If President Obama wins Franklin County, Ohio – a critical locale in a critical swing state – on Tuesday, he might want to write a thank-you note to Ohio State’s football team. The Buckeyes defeated Penn State last week, thereby enhancing Obama’s chances of taking central Ohio.
This isn’t a guess. It’s science – social science. Research shows that voters in a college team’s home county tend to reward the incumbent presidential candidate after the local team wins two weeks before the election. The effect is often significant.
When it comes to predicting voter behavior, academics, pundits and reporters tend to train their attention on the big stuff — party affiliation, incumbent approval ratings, the state of the economy. All good. But like all human behaviors, voting can’t be entirely reduced to an abstract set of numbers marching across a PowerPoint display.
So, seemingly irrelevant things — where you vote, which team won on Saturday, what order the candidates’ names appear on the ballot, etc. — all have small but measurable effects on voting outcomes, social scientists say. And in a close election, small things can turn into very big things.
Take football games. The performance of a team would seem about as important to a presidential vote as whether you burned your toast this morning. Which is why it was the perfect variable for a 2010 study entitled, “Irrelevant Events Affect Voters’ Evaluations of Government Performance.” Researchers at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and Stanford University’s business school sought to test whether an otherwise random and seemingly arbitrary event – the outcome of college football games — showed any correlation with the results of presidential, Senate and gubernatorial elections.
And it did, consistently, in every election between 1964 and 2008. On average, the researchers found, a victory by a hometown team 10 days before the election resulted in incumbent candidates receiving an additional 1.61 percentage points of the vote in the team’s county. A victory by an avidly followed, perpetual powerhouse team (like, say, Ohio State) had an even more significant effect, as much as 3.35 percentage points.
Why? The results suggest that the emotional state of voters is an important component in understanding their behavior, says Stanford professor Neil Malhotra, one of the study’s authors. If they feel good, that can translate into how they vote. And if they feel good when they vote, they generally reward the incumbent, the embodiment of the status quo, he says.
Studies about the effect of a candidate’s location on the ballot, for example, stretch back for decades. Generally speaking, having your name listed first seems to convey a marginal but important advantage, especially in elections in which the candidates aren’t well-known.
Thomas Holbrook, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, said emotion is an important factor in an election. Holbrook is one of many academics who model elections to predict their outcome. The models typically use variables such as economic growth and presidential-approval polls. But at their core, those aren’t much different as measures of sentiment than football games.
“Elections,” he says, “are basically about how satisfied people are.”