College football, voting, and the law of large numbers

In an article provocatively entitled, “Will Ohio State’s football team decide who wins the White House?”, Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier report:

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.

I took a look at the study (I felt obliged to, as it combined two of my interests) and it seemed reasonable to me. There certainly could be some big selection bias going on that the authors (and I) didn’t think of, but I saw no obvious problems. So for now I’ll take their result at face value and will assume a 2 percentage-point effect. I’ll assume that this would be +1% for the incumbent party and -1% for the other party, I assume.

I agree with Cowen and Grier that this sort of pattern among voters is disturbing, similar to Chris Achen and Larry Bartels’s famous study of the electoral effects of shark attacks.

Not as bad as it sounds

That said, I’d like to defend democracy a bit and argue that the college football effect isn’t quite as bad as Cowen and Grier imply. Here’s what they say:

The key to victory could come down to . . . Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. On Oct. 27th, a little more than a week before the election, the Ohio State Buckeyes have a big football game against Penn State. The University of Florida Gators have a huge match up against the University of Georgia Bulldogs. If the election remains razor close, these games in these two key battleground states could affect who sits in the White House for the next four years. Can you imagine Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer getting a late night call from the Obama campaign suggesting a particular blitz package? Or maybe Romney has some advice for how the Gators can bottle up Georgia’s running game. The decision of whether to punt or go for it on that crucial fourth down could affect the job prospects of more than just the football team’s coaching staff.

Unless I’m misunderstanding something, I think Romney’s staff should be giving advice to the Bulldogs, not the Gators (unless Cowen and Grier are subtly riffing last month’s “hapless Romney” meme to imply that the candidate’s best chance to help the Florida team lose is to give them advice). Details aside, though, I don’t think this adds up to so much.

I have two reasons for making this argument, even conditional on assuming that a local win really does count for 2 percentage points of the vote. My reasons are:

1. Locality. My quick reading of the Healy, Malhotra, and Mo is that all their analysis is at the county level. Ohio State University is in Columbus, Ohio, which is in Franklin county, which according to Wiki has 1.2 million people. 1.2 million is a lot, but it’s only 10% of the population of the state. So a difference of +/- 1 percentage points in Franklin county corresponds to only +/- 0.1 percentage points in the state of Ohio. An increase or decrease of 0.1 percentage points isn’t nothing, but even swing states are unlikely to be divided that closely. (Just to calibrate, 0.1% of 5 million votes is 5000 votes, which is very close for a state election.)

As for Florida . . . the Gators are in Gainesville, in Alachua county, population 250,000, that’s less than 1.5% of the population of the state. OK, maybe there’s some influence on other nearby counties but then you have to be careful, as you’re going beyond the bounds of the research study, also one might expect the effect to decline as you move away from the location of the game.

2. Averaging. The article under discussion includes two Ohio teams—Ohio State and Cincinnati. According to the schedule, the Bearcats are playing Louisville this Friday and Syracuse the Saturday after that. And, after to their upcoming Penn State game, the Buckeyes are playing Illinois before the election. So these are 4 Ohio games, not just one. Florida has three teams (Florida, Florida State, and Miami). Even lowly Virginia has two teams in the list: Virginia and Virginia Tech. And here are a few more football teams in swing states: Colorado, Iowa, and Iowa State.

There are multiple games in multiple weeks in several states, each of which, according to the analysis, operates on the county level and would have at most a 0.2% effect in any state. So there’s no reason to believe that any single game would have a big effect, and any effects there are would be averaged over many games.

In summary, it is indeed disturbing that people are more likely to vote for the incumbent party if their local team wins—sure, 2% isn’t much, but it’s a nontrivial proportion of the undecided voters. But the claim, “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,” while literally true (if the election happens to be extremely close) is overstated.

P.S. In addition, Avi suggests that the electoral effect of a football game is likely to be smaller in an intense election such as Ohio 2012, compared to an average election in the dataset.

17 thoughts on “College football, voting, and the law of large numbers

  1. Pingback: Assorted links

  2. You fail to realize how many fans in Ohio of OSU fans, regardless of the city they live in (or for that matter what university they attend/attended). I lived in Cleveland and Toledo and can tell you that many many Clevelanders and Toledoans are Buckeye fans. I, for one, love the Toledo Rockets, except when they play the Bucks (and I went to U of Toledo!!). When every professional team in the state sucks a big one for a long long time, you get fans routing for OSU because its the only winner. As a result, you cant just assume the effect pertains to Franklin County.

    • RA:

      As I wrote above: OK, maybe there’s some influence on other nearby counties but then you have to be careful, as you’re going beyond the bounds of the research study, also one might expect the effect to decline as you move away from the location of the game.

      • First, I have not read this study yet (maybe on the train ride home). That said, if the authors really did not specifically model spatial dynamics when using a county-level data set, then I am not sure its even worth reading. Spatial econometrics has been around for decades at this point.

      • For school’s like Ohio State and Florida, the effect should extend to the entire state. Most of the most committed Ohio State fans live outside of Franklin County. I think you are underestimating how widespread that fan effect is for these kinds of regionally popular schools. I’d expect the Ohio State game to impact the surrounding states as well. New York, I think, is the largest per capita market for Ohio State as well.

        • Ely:

          When I see the analysis at the state level, I’ll believe it. For now, I’ll go with the evidence I have. Perhaps these comments will motivate Healy et al. to run a state-level analysis.

  3. Re: Locality, my reading of the article is that they only tested for county-level effects, not that the effects were limited to the county.

    As a graduate of a Big Ten university now living in Georgia, I can tell you that assuming outlying counties are materially different in a way that fully neutralizes those effects is not necessarily a safe assumption. It is plausible that each county might have differing levels of impact based on college attendance. I would predict that high alumni rates would lead to higher impact, as would low 4-year college attendance rates if it is a major state school (e.g. many non-college grads in Florida are devoted Florida fans, which could, all else being equal, actually make the impact higher in some low-education rural counties).

    • Andy P:

      They could certainly reanalyze their data at the state level and see what they find. My guess is that they would find smaller effects, partly because any given state has multiple sports teams which will not all be winning or losing in unison. For now, I think it makes sense to go with the information at hand, which is the county-level analysis.

  4. Perhaps the implication is not as disturbing as it seems at first. If the outcome of a game influences only the undecided voters’ choice a week before the election, it means that there are people who cannot see a big difference between the two candidates even after a whole campaign season. If the candidates are not very different from each other, an undecided voter could stay at home or go and vote randomly. If the voter chooses to vote randomly, he/she could flip a coin or choose based on some arbitrary unrelated event such as the football game’s outcome. If the voter does not perceive a big difference between the candidates, voting based on a football game may not be worse than flipping a coin or not going to the polls at all.

    You might be bothered by a democracy where candidates are very similar to each other, but even that is not always bad. Candidates could be very similar because all major issues are solved and the next incumbent will not make a big difference to people’s lives. Of course, I am not saying this *is* the case in the US now, but it is a possibility to take into account when discussing the normative implications of voting behavior.

  5. Hi Andrew:

    Thanks for discussing our study (and reading it so closely)!

    As readers of the article (open access) can see, we never claim that college football games influence the outcome of elections. But, rather, that this was a field test (outside the lab) of how mood induced by irrelevant events affects voting behavior. And it has some nice aspects not present in the shark attacks study (i.e. no one could claim that government should have prepared for or responding to this, especially once conditioning on the betting market odds). The conclusion of the paper is that mood can influence voting, and so maybe some of economic voting is not just reasoned analysis of data, but voters emotionally responding.


    • Neil:

      Yes, I tried to distinguish above between the content of the study and the grand claims made for its importance in the upcoming election. Also, I did notice the connection you made between moods and economic voting; that’s an interesting point that I had not mentioned in my post.

  6. I would also like to defend democracy a little. It is fine to focus on the battleground states in a close election and even on a subset of undecided voters therein (though, as of now, it seems that one team is going for the base motivation, but I digress). Maybe it is the only reasonable way from the descriptive point of view of what’s going on in the elections. But from a normative point of view the influence of safe New York is not smaller than of tipping Ohio. If Obama didn’t have NY in his pocket, nobody would care for Ohio. So it is the very closeness of this election, which allows for some freak event influencing the outcome. And close election means that by and large the country is ambivalent about the choice.

  7. The real impact of college football on politics is that it’s an alternative for donors to investing in politicians and think tank ideologues. Republicans are especially hurt by rich guys who are crazy about winning at college football rather than at politics. For example, T. Boone Pickens has given something like 165 million dollars to the Oklahoma St. athletic department. (I presume his politics are Republican).

    College football is second to golf as a favorite sport of Republicans who are likely to vote. Liberal regions of the country such as the northeast have weaker college football traditions, so the game takes in less money from Democratic-leaning donors.

  8. Could this not be better explained by the game win close to the election being an intermediate variable for total season success and flow on economic benefits?

    Now, I’ll admit to having not read the paper, so apologise if this is already covered. However, I would assume that teams that win games close to the election have likely been on average more successful throughout the season. I would also assume a more successful team would pull larger crowds to home games, and that after wins the probability of fans to go out and celebrate (patronising local bars, restaurants etc) would increase, providing the local economy with a very small stimulus. The incumbent candidate could receive a small boost in support for these slightly better economic conditions in the home area of the team.

    Then again, perhaps any economic benefit from a successful team will be negligible. I wouldn’t know. Another option is that a team that is successful throughout the season may put a large proportion of locals in a better mood, making them more likely to view local conditions in a more positive light, also making them more likely to support the incumbent. Either are probably just as likely.

    • Shaun:

      No, that won’t work because they did a placebo control test where they looked at the effect of a win right after the election, and it had no effect.

  9. The study completely accords with my priors. I think it would be more puzzling if football games didn’t have an impact… The outcome of pro football games affects domestic violence, for example, and college games impact male grades. In some areas of the countries, people really live and breath football (or some other sport) in a way that’s hard to imagine… For large state schools, I would really expect a state-level impact, though the impact should be the most pronounced within the county.

    I think the more interesting thing you can do with these studies is see how long it takes the effect to die out — holding an election the day after a big loss is sure to have an impact, but a few days later I suspect many people have forgotten about the big game… Hence the pro games on Sunday and monday night are likely to have a larger impact on a Tuesday election than the saturday college games…

    Back in the day, Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson lost to an unknown in a shock election result the day after the Indianapolis Colts lost a close game to their archrival New England Patriots. People from Indy live-and-breath the Colts, and hate the Patriots, so it really is very plausible that it also impacted the election…

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