Football and Social Science


With football season officially upon us (much to the dismay of fans in Buffalo and Washington), two quick notes seemed in order. First, my cousin Stephen Horowitz – the creator of the only cartoon about Bankruptcy Law of which I am aware – has a post on his cartoon’s website addressing the similarities between structured finance and fantasy football. Not directly related to political science, but seemed like the kind of thing that might interest readers of the Monkey Cage.

Second, my favorite 2009 APSA paper featuring college football games as part of the empirical evidence (and, ok, the only 2009 APSA paper I’m aware of that features college football games) can be downloaded here. Here’s the abstract for the paper by Healy, Malhotra, and Mo, entitled Personal Emotions and Political Decision Making: Implications for Voter Competence:

According to what criteria do citizens make political decisions, and what do these criteria say about democratic competence? An impressive body of evidence suggests that voters competently evaluate diagnostic information such as macroeconomic trends and their personal financial circumstances to reward good performance while ridding themselves of leaders who are corrupt, incompetent, or ineffective. However, what if some voters’ personal emotional reactions to events completely unrelated to public affairs influence their voting decisions? The conflation of personal emotions with political cognition challenges traditional conceptions of citizen competence and democratic accountability. We explore whether emotional reactions unrelated to incumbent performance affect voting behavior by assessing the electoral impact of local college football games, events that government has nothing to do with and for which no government response would be expected. On average, a win before Election Day causes the incumbent to receive about one percentage point more of the vote, with the effect being larger for teams with stronger fan support. We corroborate these aggregate-level results with a survey conducted during the 2009 NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament, where we find that sports-induced emotional change affects approval of President Obama and assessments of the health of the country. Voters’ decisions and attitudes are thus shown to depend considerably on events that affect their personal level of happiness even when those events are entirely disconnected from government activity. Our results provide new evidence on the significant limitations of the electorate’s capacity to hold elected officials accountable for their actions.

One question I would raise about the paper concerns the magnitude of the effects. We’ve always known that traditional voting models focusing on things like performance evaluation, policy positions, partisan preference, etc., are not going to be able to capture all aspects of the voting decision. With this in mind, is the 1% of the vote identified by the authors of this paper as being a function of one’s personal emotional state a lot? Put another way, does it really provide a “significant limitation” on the ability of the electorate to hold politicians accountable, or is it simply helping to unpack some of what has always been hidden in the error term?

8 Responses to Football and Social Science

  1. snart September 15, 2009 at 7:11 pm #

    Small effect size fer sure, but it could considered a “significant limitation” in an election where less than 1% vote separates winning from losing candidate.

  2. Dan September 16, 2009 at 1:05 am #

    Only a fraction of voters are football fans, and a football game is only one of many things that influence a person’s happiness, so if a football game has a 1 percentage point effect on an election then personal emotions that are unrelated to government activity must influence a much larger number of voters. You can hope that most of those will cancel out, with some voters having a good day and some having a bad day, but other events could make voters’ moods correlated with each other. I wonder if making election day a holiday helps incumbents (although the turnout effect could swamp the mood effect).

  3. Jay Livingston September 16, 2009 at 11:14 am #

    “even when those events are entirely disconnected from government activity.” Aren’t most NCAA teams with “strong fan support” state schools? They are part of a government-run program; they provide a public option in education. So when these schools do well, even in football, why shouldn’t the citizens respond by endorsing those who are running the government?

  4. Lynn Vavreck September 16, 2009 at 6:33 pm #

    I think that all of these findings are compelling (the Achen-Bartels’ shark attacks fit in here, too) and suggest that we are much more connected to our environment, context, and to the people around us (physically and otherwise) than we typically think about when we model political decision-making. But, do these sorts of apolitical effects (public mood a la Stimson and Rahn also comes to mind) really suggest that people’s abiity to hold politician’s accountable is significantly limited? It doesn’t seem like the evidence speaks to this finding.

    The fact that the local economic indicators included in the analyses do not break the relationship (or predict outcomes very well themselves) doesn’t convince me that voters are limited. There is a pretty substantial debate about which, if any, economic indicators should affect Gubernatorial and Senate elections (Olsen & Jewel; Lewis-Beck & Rice; Stein; Niemi & Stanley, etc. . . ) and there is strong evidence that local indicators are not driving these decisions. It is more clear how economic performance affects presidential and congressional elections — through national economic indicators, not local ones.

    One could argue that even a retrospective judgment about the nation’s economcy (instead of my own personal financial situation) is more a matter of mood misattribution than of accountability, but that is not the argument explored here. I really like the idea of exploring context in all forms, but really don’t like the idea of concluding that if (non-political) context matters because of its emotional correlates than politics, policies, and politicians must not.

  5. Neil Malhotra September 16, 2009 at 8:02 pm #

    Hi Jay,

    That’s a very intersting point!

    The result in which we adjust for the betting spreads takes care of that possibility. By isolating the “surprise” component of victories and losses, we assess voter reactions to wins/losses that are net of the overall strength of the team, which might be related to the governor’s activities.

    Moreover, it wouldn’t apply to voting in presidential elections, and we find the effect there as well.

  6. Andrew Healy September 17, 2009 at 2:54 am #

    Hi Lynn,

    A couple of thoughts on your post:

    I think you’re exactly right that it can be argued that retrospective judgments about the economy may either reflect effective accountability or other stuff like mood. It’s just very hard to know whether what voters are doing when they respond to the economy makes sense or not. In the football experiment—and conditioning on the betting lines allows us to isolate the surprise component of games, as Neil says—we can actually figure out whether what voters are doing makes sense.

    And if a significant share of voters make these mistakes (and the effect goes up to around 2.5% for the most popular teams) in this one situation, it suggests that all the other hard-to-measure things in voters’ personal lives may affect their decisions, too.

    So while voters definitely respond to policies, politics, and politicians, our results suggest that voters cannot separate their personal lives from their responses to those relevant items.


  7. Jay Livingston September 19, 2009 at 11:19 am #

    Neil, I wonder whether adjusting for the spread is appropriate. With these big state schools, most of the fans are not serious bettors. Today, for example, Florida is a 30-point favorite at home vs. Tennessee. Suppose that the Vols keep it close and even go up by a few points. Then Florida comes back in the closing minutes to win by three or four points, snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat. The fans go wild. They’re very pleased with their state’s school. Maybe even the fans who also gave the 30 points feel that way. They abandoned their hopes of covering way back early in the 3rd quarter. Now at least, they get a victory on the field. And maybe that feeling for some of them will carry over from Saturday to Tuesday’s election.


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