It has been dubbed “The Ineligi-Bowl” since both teams have been banned from post season play this year, but this Saturday’s Ohio State (8-0) versus Penn State (5-2) match up in State College, Pennsylvania, could end up being the most consequential college football game of the entire season. Or at least, so says a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
In their article titled “Irrelevant events affect voters’ evaluations of government performance,” economists Andrew Healy, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Mo, analyzed the electoral impact of local college football games on county-level election results from presidential elections between 1964 and 2008. They found that a victory by the local team on the Saturday 10 days prior to election day increased the incumbent party’s vote share by 1.13 percentage points.
But the effect was even stronger for what the researchers classified as “high-attendance teams,” defined as the teams with highest average home attendance from 1998 to 2007. Ohio State is on this list. The study found that when these high-attendance teams win on on the Saturday 10 days prior to election day, the incumbent party gained 3.09 percentage points.
The game prior to the final week of the election had a slightly larger effect on the incumbent party’s vote than the Saturday game immediately preceding election day. The study’s authors theorize that “this could be due to the fact that a greater number of marginal voters make up their minds the week before the election than in just the 3 days preceding Election Day.” So next weekend’s Ohio State game versus Illinois would not have a similar impact.
President Obama currently leads Mitt Romney by just 2 percent in Ohio, according to a Real Clear Politics average of polls in the state. Romney must win either Ohio or Wisconsin (who is also a “high-attendance team” and is playing Michigan State this weekend) to reach the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the White House.
Commenting on the study for Slate, George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen writes:
No one is suggesting that college football or basketball games are the main determinants of elections. The Oklahoma University Sooners can go on a 100 game win streak and President Obama still won’t carry Oklahoma. UCLA can lose big and Mitt Romney still wouldn’t have a shot in California. Obviously, other factors besides the scores on ESPN SportsCenter matter a lot.
But these results are still amazing. Because, as the authors point out, the government has nothing to do with the game, yet incumbent politicians are getting credit or blame for the game’s outcome in the voting booth. It’s a sign of just how fickle we are and how much we can be a captive to our own moods.