Anyone currently following the World Cup, Wimbledon, or any of the many sporting events around the world will know the emotional highs and lows that they can produce. But these events wield even more power than we think. According to Andrew Healy from Loyola Marymount University, sports results can even swing the outcome of an election.
In the US, if a local college football team wins a match in the ten days before a Senate, gubernatiorial or even presidential election, the incumbent candidate tends to get a slightly higher proportion of the vote. This advantage is particularly potent if the team has a strong fan-base and if they were the underdogs. Healy’s study provides yet more evidence that voting decisions aren’t just based on objective and well-reasoned analysis, despite their importance in democratic societies. They can be influenced by completely irrelevant events, putting the fate of politicians into the hands (or feet) of sportsmen.
Healy says that a victory by a local team puts sports fans in a generally positive frame of mind. If they approach the ballot box in this way, they’re more likely to think well of the incumbent party, to interpret their past record more positively, and to be more content with the status quo. The same effect, where emotions cross the boundaries between different judgments, has been seen countless times before in laboratory studies.
When we’re in a good mood, we overestimate the frequency of happy events in our lives, we interpret things around us more favourably, and we spend more time thinking about the positive sides of the things we’re judging. These trends hold true even for things that have nothing to do with whatever made us happy. As an example, people think that their cars or televisions perform better if they received a free gift beforehand. And this applies to politicians too.
Healy looked at the results of local college football games between 1964 and 2008, for all counties with teams in the Bowl Championship Series. He compared these results to those of American presidential, gubernatorial and senate elections within the same counties. The numbers showed that if the local team won in the 10 days before the election, the incumbent’s share of the vote went up by 0.8 percentage points – a small but statistically significant change. This effect became even bigger after Healy adjusted the results for how strong and consistent the teams were, or the wealth, education and ethnic diversity of the counties.
If Healy’s explanation about positive moods is correct, you would expect football games to have a stronger influence in conditions where they engender stronger emotions. And that’s exactly what happens. If the local underdog team won against expectations (as measured by looking at the odds given by betting offices), the incumbent’s vote share went up by 1.61 percentage points. In counties where more people turn up to matches, or where the local team has a track record of championship wins, a local victory boosted the incumbent’s vote share by between 2.30 and 2.42 percentage points.
These stats support Healy’s idea that it’s all about emotions. The buzz of seeing the local team win can translate to a feel-good factor for the current government, particularly if the victory was unexpected or if you’re in an area that’s football-mad. And in all these cases, games played after Election Day had no bearing on the incumbent’s prospects.
Healy found the same effect in another sport and at an individual level, by showing that the performance of local teams in a basketball tournament affected people’s approval of President Obama.
During the 2009 NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, Healy asked over 3,000 people to name their favourite team and found that for every win the team achieved above the bookies’ predictions, their approval rating for Obama went up by 2.3 percentage points. Again, the effect was strongest among the biggest fans. Victories garnered an extra 5 percentage points of support for the President among people closely following the tournament, but just 1.1 points among more casual supporters.
And this time, Healy embedded an experiment in his study. After asking the volunteers to name their team, he told half of them about the scores in recent games in great detail. Doing so completely nullified the effect of these games on Obama’s approval ratings. That’s critically important for it suggests that the link between sporting success, mood and voting decisions is a unconscious one. It also tells us that moving these considerations to the front of our minds can strip them of any influence.
Healy’s work is just the latest of a long line of psychological studies that show us the irrational nature of voting. People make child-like judgments about a candidate’s competence based on second-long glances at their faces, and they can predict the winner of an election with reasonable accuracy based on such short looks. The subliminal sight of a national flag can shift people’s voting choices. And even undecided people have often secretly made their minds up, even if they have no clue that they’ve done so.
Now we see that events well beyond a politician’s control can also affect their fates. Sports are an ideal avenue for exploring this effect. You wouldn’t expect governments to respond to the outcomes of games, nor voters to hold governments responsible for such outcomes. And whether a school is privately or publicly funded had no bearing on the link between sporting and election results. And yet, sporting outcomes do seem to trigger small shifts at the ballots.
Imagine then the even greater influence of other events that could be reasonably tied to government performance, such as the health of the economy or the outcome of a natural disaster. As Healy says, “A voter who is presented with negative information about the local economy may perceive a separate news story about the president’s foreign policy in a less positive light.”
If that seems dangerous, the study also provides a silver lining – this effect is a fragile one. If you can make people aware of the reasons for their state of mind, the influence of irrelevant events becomes weaker – all the more reason to do research like this in the first place.
More on the psychology of voting and political attitudes:
- Undecided voters aren’t really undecided – the hidden side of decision-making
- Voters use child-like judgments when judging political candidates
- Subliminal flag shifts political views and voting choices
- How light or dark is Barack Obama’s skin? Depends on your political stance…
- Political attitudes linked to startle reflexes