How Sports Could Determine Our Next President

Sept. 11, 2010: Ohio State Buckeyes running back Dan Herron (1) dives for a touchdown

Winston Churchill famously said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Today, that statement gains some empirical footing thanks to new research from economists who claim to have shown that victories by local football teams on the eve of elections causes an increase in votes for incumbent governors, senators, and even presidents. Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier wrote in Slate:

Economists Andrew Healy, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Mo make this argument in a fascinating article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. They examined whether the outcomes of college football games on the eve of elections for presidents, senators, and governors affected the choices voters made. They found that a win by the local team, in the week before an election, raises the vote going to the incumbent by around 1.5 percentage points. When it comes to the 20 highest attendance teams—big athletic programs like the University of Michigan, Oklahoma, and Southern Cal—a victory on the eve of an election pushes the vote for the incumbent up by 3 percentage points. That’s a lot of votes, certainly more than the margin of victory in a tight race. And these results aren’t based on just a handful of games or political seasons; the data were taken from 62 big-time college teams from 1964 to 2008. [1]

The message seems to be that seeing your local sports team win brings about satisfaction with the status quo both for your life and politics more broadly. And this research isn’t just tied to football. It’s also supported by older studies that found a similar affect with local NCAA basketball teams. The positive spin on this research—and I think there is one—is that sports are a major component of our contentment with the world around us and actually induce somewhat lasting comfort and happiness. The idea that sports also extend into other aspects of life is also promising for many of America’s favorite pastimes.

The bad news, as Winston Churchill put it in an openly elitist spirit, is that the masses tend to make irrational choices. The fact that elections are even in some small part (we are talking less than 3%) affected by totally irrelevant issues harkens back concerns with the popular vote that led to the establishment of protections like the electoral college, senate, and supreme court in the first place. Seeing the “tyranny of the majority” in full force, I’m sure Alexis De Tocqueville is rolling in his grave. As the authors put it here,

It’s a little scary to think that popular culture, including sports, “medicates” us for when we face real world decisions. Furthermore, if a sports score can matter this much, we should wonder whether voters are processing the more traditional forms of political information—such as data on economic performance—in a rational manner either…

The success of your local team is the electoral cousin of beer goggles: It can cloud your judgment and make you hate yourself in the morning. And that, as they say, just ain’t right.

The big games that are expected to matter for this coming election are situated in swing states where the less than 3% impact could actually make a difference. The authors predict significant influence from the October 27th games between the Ohio State Buckeyes and Penn State and the University of Florida Gators and the University of Georgia Bulldogs. If the stakes weren’t high enough for those teams already, they are now.


[1] “Will Ohio State’s Football Team Decide Who Wins the White House?” Tyler Cohen and Kevin Grier, Slate

Images via
Rick Osentoski, Photoshelter

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