Will Ohio State’s Football Team Decide Who Wins the White House?

How politically irrelevant events—like a college football game—can determine who wins an election.

Braxton Miller
If you’re an Ohio Republican, should you root against the Buckeyes between now and the election?

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images.

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”—Winston Churchill”

The 2012 presidential election looks like it could be a close one, whether in the Electoral College or the popular vote. When an election is tight, trying to understand voter behavior is all the more important.

What exactly is it that makes voters reward a challenger or punish an incumbent?  Do they care about the unemployment rate, GDP, or inflation, or is it how those variables are moving? Are voters motivated by position papers or a candidate’s personal history?  Is the electorate responding to slick TV ads or how the candidates performed in the debates?

It may be something else altogether. Recent research has revealed that voter irrationality may be more arbitrary than we think. And in a razor-thin election just enough irrationality can make all the difference. Just how irrational are voters? It is statistically possible that the outcome of a handful of college football games in the right battleground states could determine the race for the White House.

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.

The good news, we suppose, is that sports really can cheer us up and make the world seem like a brighter place. The sports fan is left happier and more satisfied all around, not just on the gridiron. When you are feeling upbeat and happy, you feel more satisfied with the status quo in general. And feeling satisfied with the status quo makes you more likely to vote for the incumbent politician, even if that’s totally irrational.

The study’s authors control for economic, demographic, and political factors, so the results are much more sophisticated than just a raw correlation. They also did a deeper analysis that took into account people’s expectations. It turns out that surprise wins are especially potent, raising local support for incumbent politicians by around 2.5 percentage points.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to football. The authors also considered the 2009 NCAA Basketball Tournament and found broadly similar results. Another study looks at mayoral elections from 1948 to 2009 and analyzed those electoral contests against professional baseball, football, and basketball games. Again, if the local sports team is having a good year, it’s a good bet that incumbents will see a bump on Election Day.

No one is suggesting that college football or basketball games are the main determinants of elections. The Oklahoma University Sooners can go on a 100 game win streak and President Obama still won’t carry Oklahoma. UCLA can lose big and Mitt Romney still wouldn’t have a shot in California. Obviously, other factors besides the scores on ESPN SportsCenter matter a lot.

But these results are still amazing. Because, as the authors point out, the government has nothing to do with the game, yet incumbent politicians are getting credit or blame for the game’s outcome in the voting booth. It’s a sign of just how fickle we are and how much we can be a captive to our own moods. 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.

So let’s consider an extreme scenario. Right now President Obama seems to have a slight edge over Gov. Mitt Romney, but most observers expect this election to be close. For Republicans, the key to victory could come down to how they perform in three swing states: Florida, Ohio, and Virginia.

On Oct. 27th, a little more than a week before the election, the Ohio State Buckeyes have a big football game against Penn State. The University of Florida Gators have a huge match up against the University of Georgia Bulldogs. If the election remains razor close, these games in these two key battleground states could affect who sits in the White House for the next four years. Can you imagine Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer getting a late night call from the Obama campaign suggesting a particular blitz package? Or maybe Romney has some advice for how the Gators can bottle up Georgia’s running game. The decision of whether to punt or go for it on that crucial fourth down could affect the job prospects of more than just the football team’s coaching staff.

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.