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Electoral College Gameday

How college football scores could affect the 2012 presidential election (no, really)

Sports on Earth

Don’t get the wrong idea. Sean Moore is a patriot. Loves the United States of America. Cares about the future of the country. Leans Republican, thinks Mitt Romney is a better presidential choice than Barack Obama and plans to fulfill his democratic duty by voting accordingly.

That said, it’s not like Moore would trade a Romney victory for, say, an Ohio State football loss.

The man, after all, has priorities.

“Oh, man, that would be a really tough choice,” says Moore, a 23-year-old Ohio State medical student and former member of the Buckeyes diving team. “But I guess I just hate seeing the Buckeyes lose. It’s the worst possible feeling. When I was an undergrad, we’d party all day, then watch the [football] game, and if the Buckeyes lost, I would just go to bed. I’d have to root for them to win over rooting for Obama to lose.”

Moore laughs.

“I don’t know what that says about me as an American,” he says. “I do know I like football like an American.”

An Ohio State victory. A Romney triumph. Ohio voters -- Ohio Republicans -- can only pick one. Ridiculous thought exercise? Gimmicky election-pegged sports column conceit?

Think again.

If a recent paper published by a trio of economists is right, then the upcoming presidential election may not be decided by Obama’s somnambulant first debate performance, Romney’s proxy War on Empty Chairs, actual political and social issues -- ah ha ha ha ha ha -- or even an unprecedented bipartisan television advertising blitz to shame any hell that beer and auto insurance companies have ever unleashed upon unsuspecting sports viewers.

Instead, the race for the White House may hinge on a handful of college football games.

Strange but true: According to researchers Andrew Healy, Cecilia Mo and Neil Malhotra, victories by college football teams within a 10-day period prior to Election Day raise the local vote share for incumbent politicians -- governors, senators and presidents -- by 1.6 percentage points, with the effect being larger for surprise victories and in areas where fan support is particularly strong (2.3 to 2.5 points).

In other words, when the home team wins, so does the sitting president.

“It’s crazy to think that something like a football game a week before the election could have an effect on the next four years and our entire nation,” says Abby Johnson, a silver medal-winning Olympic diver who grew up in Columbus, Ohio. “But I can tell you that when Ohio State doesn’t win, Mondays in Columbus can be very down days.”

Therein lies the rub: Places like Columbus -- think Madison, Gainesville and Iowa City, among others -- almost certainly will play an outsized role in deciding the election. National polls put Obama and Romney in a virtual dead heat, with victory in the electoral college coming down to tight vote margins in eight swing states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

With seven of those states -- sorry, New Hampshire -- also home to major college football, it’s not completely inconceivable that the fate of the free world could depend on Ohio State beating Illinois this Saturday.

Or Florida defeating Missouri.

Or Virginia topping NC State.

Or Iowa stopping Indiana.

Or Wisconsin crushing -- well, actually, the Badgers are off this week. But they did lose to Michigan State in an overtime upset last week, which may give Romney a minor boost.

“I planned to root violently against Wisconsin, but since they don’t have a game, I’ll root against Iowa,” Moore says. “Romney should have a good chance there. Also, I hate all Florida teams to begin with, but now I’ll be sure to watch their games and throw things at my TV if necessary.”

With so many states in play -- and so many swing state games on Saturday’s schedule, including Colorado-Stanford and UCF-SMU -- Moore isn’t the only politically-minded football fan who faces suddenly split allegiances and intense interest in games that he otherwise wouldn’t notice. Still, the Ohio State-Illinois contest is illustrative. And perhaps the most crucial. Having crunched the electoral numbers, most political observers believe that the presidential race will come down to Ohio: Lose the state, and Romney’s path to a victorious 270 electoral votes becomes all-but-impossibly narrow.
(Also worth noting: no Republican presidential nominee has ever lost Ohio but won the White House).

Predictably -- irony intended -- Democrats and Republicans each claim that proprietary poll numbers give their respective candidates an Ohio edge. Meanwhile, New York Times political numbers whiz (and former baseball sabermetrician) Nate Silver says that Obama has a small but significant lead of 2.6 percentage points in the state. Small enough that an unexpected loss by a wildly popular team -- in this case, the undefeated-but-bowl-ineligible Buckeyes going down to the 2-6 Illini -- could make a real difference.

That is, if Healy and his fellow economists really are onto something.

“If Ohio State were to lose and it would blow their undefeated season, you would think that would be a fairly big deal,” says Healy, an economics professor at Loyola Marymount University. “Or take Florida. They lost to Georgia last week in an upset. If they lose two games in a row, that would be sort of a textbook case for us, where you might really see some action. That could move the electorate three percentage points.”

Healy and his colleagues are the first to admit: The link between college football and elections makes no sense. It’s wholly, utterly irrational. Urban Meyer and Nick Saban might be control freaks -- and by control freaks, I mean tinpot campus dictators who ought to go by Coachissimo and wear sideline epaulets -- but neither man has a say when it comes to health care policy and/or sanctions against Iran.

On the other hand, said irrationality is exactly why Healy and Co. chose to study college football. A body of research suggests that voters respond to all sorts of things that have nothing to do with performance in public office. Or even with politics at all. Again, strange but true: Voters are less likely to cast their ballots for incumbents following tornadoes. And also after shark attacks.

Why is this the case? Political scientists believe that voting decisions are influenced by mood. Which isn’t a crazy assumption, given that psychological studies have shown that people often transfer emotions in one domain toward evaluation and judgment in a completely independent domain. To test this hypothesis, Healy and his co-authors needed something that: (a) a lot of people care intensely about; (b) has nothing to do with government; (c) takes place in both urban and rural environments, and also across the country, thereby providing a diverse and representative sample of voters.

College football fit the bill. The questions were simple: Did team performance affect incumbent performance in elections? If so, then how? Analyzing school football records and surrounding county voting results for 62 Division-I teams from 1964 to 2008 -- while running controls and checks to isolate game effects and demonstrate a relationship that was more causal than correlational -- they found that local team victories before elections consistently boosted incumbent vote share. In a second, related study, they also found that NCAA men’s basketball tournament success led to an approval-rating bump for President Obama.

(Maybe Obama’s oft-ridiculed yearly bracket predictions on ESPN aren’t so silly, after all).

“When we think about the overall effect on the electorate with this, we need to be cautious,” Healy says. “These effects aren’t huge. Most people are not huge college football fans, so it’s not necessarily affecting most people. In any given election, it’s hard to say.

“That said, the fact that there’s something there suggests that things that shouldn’t matter to voters probably do. Anything that affects your mood -- like having a bad day or a bad morning commute -- could affect your vote. If you’re in a good mood, you think about the things that you are satisfied with the president for having done well. And if you’re in a bad mood, you think about the things they haven’t done well.”

Healy isn’t speaking from an abstract, academic place. He’s a sports fan. A huge one, actually. Lives and dies with the New England Patriots. “I know it’s pathetic,” he says, “given that I’m a grown man.” Following the Patriots’ Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants earlier this year, Healy found himself in an emotional funk -- even though his own research told him he should have known better.

“We all have a tendency to think we’re immune to these sorts of biases,” he says. “On a gut level, I think I am. But that whole week after the Patriots lost, I was thinking about everything less positively. I don’t know if it would have moved my approval of the president’s performance. But it could have moved a lot of things.”

Johnson can relate. Currently a senior at Duke, the 22-year-old plans to go home to Columbus for Thanksgiving, the better to attend the Michigan-Ohio State football game. She still remembers the Buckeyes’ 2005 home loss to Texas, a 25-22 nail-biter that left a then-record Ohio Stadium crowd of 105,565 in a postgame state of shock.

“It was silent, like, 100,000 people just filing out in total silence with their heads down,” Johnson says. “When the team wins, people are happy. It does affect the mood. It certainly affects my mood -- and I’m sitting in my house [at Duke], watching the game in my jersey by myself.”

Like Moore, Johnson is voting for Romney. Would she trade an Ohio State loss to Illinois for a Republican in the Oval Office?

“I’m kind of torn,” she says. “If they do lose, I guess it’s consolation that it might help Romney. And if Obama wins Ohio by a really narrow margin, I’ll be wondering if the Buckeyes had lost, would it have gone another way?”

So would you make the trade?

“Given that OSU isn’t eligible for a bowl this year, it’s not like they have that much on the line, while the presidential election is a four-year commitment,” she says. “I guess I would take a loss -- but only if it guarantees that Romney wins Ohio. And I don’t want to give the pre-game speech.”

Why not?

“You can’t really go into the Buckeyes’ locker room and tell them, ‘Guys, lie down for the Republican Party. It’s worth it!”

Owen Mardsen, by contrast, would make that speech. Only not to the Buckeyes. The communications director for the College Democrats of Illinois, he says he would gladly trade an Illini loss for 5,000-10,000 extra Obama votes in Ohio. Without hesitation, actually.

Of course, that’s mostly because the Illini are terrible this year.

“[John] Kerry lost Ohio by something like 14,000 votes in 2004,” says Mardsen, a 21-year-old graduate student. “So you tell me it’s worth almost that many votes for Obama, and I’ll pay the price. Now, if we were looking to play in the Rose Bowl or the Big Ten championship game, it’s another story.”

Ohio State College Republicans communications director Niraj Antani is different. He’s pro-Romney. Pro-Buckeyes. He’s skeptical of the study, and doesn’t think the GOP candidate needs a Buckeyes loss to take the state. In fact, Antani argues, a mood-boosting Ohio State victory could work against Obama.

“Let’s say the Buckeyes win, and let’s say I’m an Obama voter,” he says. “I’m a busy guy. I have a wife and kids. Or I’m a student with an exam the day after the election. For me to walk the 10 blocks to my polling location when I’m already feeling good and feeling good about an Obama victory -- maybe I won’t bother to go vote.”

With a perfectly-spun statement like that, it’s not surprising that Antani has interned with political campaigns and on Capitol Hill. For others, however, this weekend’s dilemma remains. Root for your favorite team. Or root for your preferred candidate.

For his part, Romney almost certainly isn’t conflicted. He wants to be president, badly; he also once declared “I have been a Michigan and a Wolverine fan for a long, long time.” (A statement that was later used against him in a newspaper ad put out by the Ohio Democratic party). If the Republican nominee doesn’t pull for the Illini -- if he doesn’t show up to his Saturday campaign events in an Illinois letterman’s jacket -- he has only himself to blame.

Moore, on the other hand, sees things differently. Sure, he’s a registered Republican. And he thinks Romney would do a better job than Obama balancing the federal budget. Thing is, his father went to Ohio State. So did his uncles. He hates to be selfish, but Buckeyes football brings him much more immediate happiness than political races.

“Even if OSU was winless, I’d still root for them to win,” he says. “I guess that’s bad news for my politics.”

Moore pauses.

“You know, if you think about it, we’d be winning a game against Obama’s home state,” he says. “So I guess that part makes me feel kind of good.”

Read the original article at Sports on Earth