College football is back. Finally, a chance to step away from the maelstrom of campaign news for a few hours and focus only on the glory and struggle of sport, free of any political implications whatsoever.
As it turns out, even football games affect the way we evaluate politicians, at least in the short-term. New research by three Northwestern University political scientists finds that when a team wins a big game, its fans’ euphoria translates into higher approval ratings for the president. The loser’s fans, however, take it out on the president, evaluating him less charitably.
This isn’t the first research to investigate links between sports and politics. In 2010, a trio of scholars published a widely discussed paper showing that victories by local college football teams in the days before an election boosted support for incumbents. The implication is that voters may reward politicians for events well beyond their control — simply because they’re in a good mood. A paper last year cast doubt on the connection, finding little evidence for a relationship between football results and election outcomes.
The new research by Ethan Busby, James Druckman and Alexandria Fredendall, forthcoming in the Journal of Politics, takes a different approach, using an experiment in the days surrounding the 2015 College Football Playoff National Championship. As Oregon Ducks fans will sadly recall, the Ohio State Buckeyes won the game 42-20 with a bruising running attack.
In the lead-up to the Jan. 12 game, Busby and his colleagues drew a sample of about 200 students each from Ohio State and Oregon. Half the students were randomly assigned to fill out a survey about politics within the two days before the game. The other half were asked to fill out a survey within the two days after the game.
The key to the study was comparing President Obama’s approval ratings in the two groups — those who took the survey before Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott ran roughshod over Oregon’s defense and those who took the survey afterward. Any difference would be attributed to the outcome of the game.
And the researchers found differences. Among the Ohio State students, Busby and his colleagues saw a statistically significant increase in Obama’s approval rating from the group that answered the survey before the Buckeyes’ victory to the one that answered after. Before the game, Obama’s approval rating was 4.18 (on a seven-point scale). After the game, it was 4.63, an increase of 0.45 (or about 10.8 percent).
At Oregon, just the opposite happened. Obama’s approval rating dropped by a statistically significant 0.44, from 4.56 before the game to 4.12 afterward. Disappointed Ducks fans appeared to punish the president. Thanks, Obama.
The researchers also found evidence consistent with the notion that it was the students’ mood that drove these differences. At Ohio State, subjects in the postgame survey reported more positive feelings than did their fellow students who took the survey before the game. At Oregon, however, students in the postgame survey reported a less positive mood than pre-survey respondents did. Although Busby and his colleagues do not link these shifts directly to presidential approval, the patterns are consistent with the hypothesis that mood swings can account for changes in political attitudes.
Before we declare the end of democracy, however, it’s important to note that the effects were short-lived. When respondents were interviewed a week after the initial survey, the differences in ratings of Obama disappeared. Both Buckeyes and Ducks returned to their pregame levels of approval, indicating that the effects of the championship were fleeting.
Busby and his colleagues’ findings are in line with a growing body of work that shows “irrelevant” events can shape how citizens assess the political world and behave in elections. There is little doubt that voters sometimes punish politicians for things — such as shark attacks or droughts — over which they have no control.
At the same time, we should be cautious in trying to predict what these findings mean for the outcome of a given election or the fluctuation of a president’s approval rating. Not only are the effects of a college football game ephemeral, but they also compete with innumerable other events — good and bad — that may shape how people feel. Indeed, the highs and lows among Ohio State and Oregon students basically canceled each other out.
So while people’s political attitudes might be influenced by a last-minute field goal, presidents or governments rarely rise and fall on football games. That may not give great comfort to those concerned about the wisdom of the electoral crowds, but it probably means that you can at least safely cheer for your favorite team (go, Longhorns; sorry, Irish) this weekend without worrying about the political fallout.