Local sports wins can affect voting: study

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Big win for your favorite World Cup team? That could affect how you vote in an upcoming election, says a new study that looked at college football wins and voting patterns.

U.S. researchers found that a win for the local team - especially a surprise win, or a win for a team with lots of fans - was linked to more votes for the incumbent in presidential, Senate, and gubernatorial elections.

Previous research has shown that people in a good mood from a win or any other cause on Election Day take their happiness as a sign of the incumbent doing a good job, and may be more likely to support that candidate’s party.

In the study, which is published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, economists led by Andrew Healy from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles analyzed data from 62 Division I college football teams and election results starting in 1964.

A win by the local team in the two weeks before an election corresponded to almost one percent more votes for the incumbent from voters in that team’s county.

When the researchers took the “surprise component” into account and included whether a team was expected to win in its analysis, happy fans -- and locals in general -- gave the incumbent 1.6 percent more votes after a win. For the 20 teams with the most fans attending their games, the increase was 2.4 percent.

Although he was reluctant to specify elections where the hometown win could have played a role, Neil Malhotra, a Stanford political economist and one of the paper’s authors, said that many close elections, including the 2000 presidential election, could have been influenced by the effect.

In Florida, however, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore of the incumbent Democratic Party through a Supreme Court decision after consecutive wins by both Florida and Florida State.

Leading up to the 2004 presidential election, Ohio State won consecutive games - and Ohio went to incumbent Bush by just over two percentage points. Had it gone the other way, John Kerry might have won the national election.

“Anytime when Ohio is decided by two percentage points, it could be decided by Ohio State,” lead author Healy told Reuters Health. “But it’s really hard to know at any one time” what the deciding factors in elections are, he said.

The good feelings about incumbent candidates after a local team’s win are mostly unconscious, the authors say.

When they did another experiment on people from areas with teams in the 2009 NCAA Sweet Sixteen - the last 16 teams in the Division I national men’s college basketball tournament - each win by their favorite team made people more likely to say they approved of how President Obama was handling his job.

But their team’s success didn’t make a difference in their evaluation of Obama when the participants had just been reminded of how well their team had done in the tournament. In this case, people were able to distinguish who made them happy - their team or the president.

It’s when people aren’t reminded of the reason for their overall well-being that they may be more likely to unconsciously attribute their happiness to the current government and vote accordingly, according to the authors.

The results show that voters may not be as rational in their decision making as they would like to think, the authors say. People’s feelings about anything in their lives - including factors totally out of the government’s control - may influence how they feel about the government, and how they vote.

That conclusion has implications for election candidates, Healy said. It’s not necessarily their performance over the entire term that matters, he said, but voters’ happiness.

Incumbents running for reelection, he said, “should do whatever they can to just make voters happy in the moment.”

And, it appears, root hard for the home team.


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, online July 6, 2010.