Campaigns and elections

Football and Social Science

Sep 15 '09


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_:

bq. 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?