There has been broad speculation on if and how Greece’s election results were affected by Greece’s surprise win over Russia in the European football (soccer) championships, which set up a juicy quarter final encounter with Germany. Political science research suggests that such a surprise win may very well give incumbents a significant boost. Below is some evidence from elections following NCAA football games and presidential polling following surprise wins in the NCAA basketball tournament. This is from an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science by Andrew J. Healy, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Hyunjung Mo (see here our earlier post about the working paper version):
Does information irrelevant to government performance affect voting behavior? If so, how does this help us understand the mechanisms underlying voters’ retrospective assessments of candidates’ performance in office? To precisely test for the effects of irrelevant information, we explore the electoral impact of local college football games just before an election, irrelevant events that government has nothing to do with and for which no government response would be expected. We find that a win in the 10 d before Election Day causes the incumbent to receive an additional 1.61 percentage points of the vote in Senate, gubernatorial, and presidential elections, with the effect being larger for teams with stronger fan support. In addition to conducting placebo tests based on postelection games, we demonstrate these effects by using the betting market’s estimate of a team’s probability of winning the game before it occurs to isolate the surprise component of game outcomes. We corroborate these aggregate-level results with a survey that we conducted during the 2009 NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, where we find that surprising wins and losses affect presidential approval. An experiment embedded within the survey also indicates that personal well-being may influence voting decisions on a subconscious level. We find that making people more aware of the reasons for their current state of mind reduces the effect that irrelevant events have on their opinions. These findings underscore the subtle power of irrelevant events in shaping important real-world decisions and suggest ways in which decision making can be improved.
I suspect the effect of this particular victory in Greece would be larger than the average effect of just any football game. Yet even a 1,5% or 2% differential in vote returns can be massive in the Greek context. The New Democracy party won 29.5% of the vote whereas Syriza (the anti-austerity opposition) got 27.1%. In the Greek system the largest party gets an extra fifty seats in parliament (out of 300 seats).
We obviously can’t tell whether the boost in optimism was sufficient for the 2.4 percentage point gap but it is not entirely implausible. We know that incumbents get punished for irrelevant events such as tornadoes and shark attacks so why couldn’t they get rewarded for equally irrelevant events that boost optimism rather than despair?
h/t Anton Strezhnev