When it comes to predicting voter behavior, academics, pundits and reporters tend to train their attention on the big stuff — party affiliation, incumbent approval ratings, the state of the economy. All good. But like all human behaviors, voting can’t be entirely reduced to an abstract set of numbers marching across a PowerPoint display. As an emerging body of research suggests, voting reflects the same whims, quirks and emotional crosscurrents that make humans such unpredictable creatures.
So, seemingly irrelevant things — where you vote, which team won on Saturday, what order the candidates’ names appear on the ballot, etc. — all have small but measurable effects on voting outcomes, social scientists say. And in an election that is expected to be as close as this one, small things can turn into very big things.
Take football games. The performance of a bunch of muscled behemoths would seem about as important to a presidential vote as whether you burned your toast this morning. Which is why it was the perfect variable for a 2010 study entitled, “Irrelevant Events Affect Voters’ Evaluations of Government Performance.” Researchers at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and Stanford University’s business school sought to test whether an otherwise random and seemingly arbitrary event — the outcome of college football games — showed any correlation with the results of presidential, Senate and gubernatorial elections.
And it did, consistently, in every election between 1964 and 2008. On average, the researchers found, a victory by a hometown team 10 days before the election resulted in incumbent candidates receiving an additional 1.61 percentage points of the vote in the team’s county. A victory by an avidly followed, perpetual powerhouse team (like, say, Ohio State) had an even more significant effect, as much as 3.35 percentage points.
Why? The results suggest that the emotional state of voters is an important component in understanding their behavior, says Stanford professor Neil Malhotra, one of the study’s authors. If they feel good, that can translate into how they vote. And if they feel good when they vote, they generally reward the incumbent, the embodiment of the status quo, he says.
To test this theory, Malhotra and his colleagues did a parallel experiment involving NCAA basketball fans. They asked people who identified themselves as fans of teams that had advanced to the NCAA championship tournament’s later rounds in 2009 to rate Obama’s job performance. Result: The further the respondents’ teams advanced, the higher their approval of Obama. Another recent study found a relatively high correlation between local sports teams’ success and mayoral reelection rates.