Recent research has revealed that voter irrationality may be more arbitrary than we think. And in a razor-thin election just enough irrationality can make all the difference. Just how irrational are voters? It is statistically possible that the outcome of a handful of college football games in the right battleground states could determine the race for the White House.
Economists Andrew Healy, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Mo make this argument in a fascinating article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. They examined whether the outcomes of college football games on the eve of elections for presidents, senators, and governors affected the choices voters made. They found that a win by the local team, in the week before an election, raises the vote going to the incumbent by around 1.5 percentage points. When it comes to the 20 highest attendance teams—big athletic programs like the University of Michigan, Oklahoma, and Southern Cal—a victory on the eve of an election pushes the vote for the incumbent up by 3 percentage points. That’s a lot of votes, certainly more than the margin of victory in a tight race. And these results aren’t based on just a handful of games or political seasons; the data were taken from 62 big-time college teams from 1964 to 2008.
The good news, we suppose, is that sports really can cheer us up and make the world seem like a brighter place. The sports fan is left happier and more satisfied all around, not just on the gridiron. When you are feeling upbeat and happy, you feel more satisfied with the status quo in general. And feeling satisfied with the status quo makes you more likely to vote for the incumbent politician, even if that’s totally irrational.
The study’s authors control for economic, demographic, and political factors, so the results are much more sophisticated than just a raw correlation. They also did a deeper analysis that took into account people’s expectations. It turns out that surprise wins are especially potent, raising local support for incumbent politicians by around 2.5 percentage points.Oh, boy... taking a look at the schedule (and the electoral map), that means we should probably be keeping an eye on Missouri-Florida, UVA-NC State, Virginia Tech-Miami (not sure what to make of that one), and perhaps most importantly Ohio State-Illinois.
I've covered voter irrationality—and self-deception—before (here and here, mostly), but this takes that to a whole new level. It's one thing to vote based on contradictory principles or on platforms and ideologies that don't make a whole lot of sense. It's another thing entirely to walk into a voting booth and vote for the incumbent just because you're happy that day. But hey... that's democracy, right?
Now, for today's final word on voter idiocy, we'll turn to our friends at Freakonomics, who shared a fantastic letter that was sent to economist Bryan Caplan by a former (and, for our purposes, anonymous) Virginia state senator. I think it sums things up pretty nicely.
"I do want to thank you for confirming by your research that my ideas about the stupidity of voters is a valid thought." Pretty sure that's not exactly the sentiment we hope to hear from our elected officials. But given our level of competence with respect to investments, it's hardly surprising.