This weekend’s college football games may determine whether President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney wins the presidential election.
To put it simply, an extensive study found if a home team wins 10 days before the election, the incumbent can expect a bump of about 1.5-3 percentage points in the team’s home county. This means Republicans on Saturday should root against big-time college football teams from swing states like Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan.
Economists Andrew Healy, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Hyunjung Mo make this argument in an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Journal titled, “Irrelevant events affect voters’ evaluations of government performance.” Their study was extensive, based on data from 62 big-time college football teams from 1964 to 2008.
The study looked at results of college football games and the corresponding impact those games had on county vote totals and found that when the home team wins 10 days before the election, the incumbent party can expect about a 1.6 percentage point boost at the polls. More importantly, if the home team is a “high-attendance” or “championship” team (think of the big-time programs like Alabama, Florida, Ohio State, USC, and Michigan that have won national titles since 1964 or the top-20 teams in average attendance — the full list of these teams can be seen here) and wins, the incumbent party can expect to gain approximately three percentage points on election day.
The study found that a win 10 days before election day “causes the incumbent to receive an additional 1.61 percentage points of the vote in Senate, gubernatorial, and presidential elections.” Further, the study concluded when a so-called “high-attendance” or “championship” team won, the incumbent party gained an additional 2.42 percentage points, bringing the total up to around three percentage points.
According to the report, “voters who are in a positive state of mind on Election Day are likely to use their mood as a signal for the incumbent party’s success and access positive memories about the incumbent party and/or interpret past actions taken by the incumbent party more favorably.” Further, positive emotions “may cause voters to be more satisfied with the status quo,” which means those voters may be more inclined to choose the incumbent party in the election.
“We find clear evidence that the successes and failures of the local college football team before Election Day significantly influence the electoral prospects of the incumbent party, suggesting that voters reward and punish incumbents for changes in their well-being unrelated to government performance,” the authors write.
They note these findings “underscore the subtle power of irrelevant events in shaping important real-world decisions” and show “that events that government had nothing to do with, but that affect voters’ sense of well-being, can affect the decisions that they make on Election Day.”
How college football teams did the weekend before the election made less of an impact because, as the study found, more voters make up their minds two weekends before the election than the weekend before.
So while many in the college football world are treating this weekend’s games as appetizers for next weekend’s Alabama versus LSU and USC versus Oregon showdowns, Saturday’s games are the most important when it comes to potentially influencing the presidential race.
Here are the top-ten outcomes Republicans should be rooting for on Saturday to maximize Romney’s chances of winning the election:
1. Penn State over Ohio State
In this matchup of two storied and embattled programs and rivals, Republicans will want to root for Penn State to give Ohio State its first loss. Ohio is the most important state in the election, and Buckeyes are the state’s most prominent football team. Obama won Franklin County in 2008, 59% to 40%, and an Ohio State win would give him a three-point bump in that county — and in many other Ohio counties — because Ohio State is considered a “championship” or “high attendance” team.
2. Northwestern over Iowa
Republican should root for Northwestern, who can still win their conference title, to defeat Iowa. Romney and Obama are tied in Iowa and Republican voters traditionally show up on election day. Iowa may be won by the slimmest of margins. Obama won Johnson County in 2008, 70% to 29%, and an Iowa win would likely give Obama a 1.5-point bump in the county.
3. Michigan State over Wisconsin
Paul Ryan may be disappointed if Michigan State beats Wisconsin, but the race could come down to Wisconsin, and a Michigan State win could tip the state to Romney and Ryan. Obama won Dane County in Wisconsin in 2008, 74% to 26%, and a Wisconsin win would give him a three-point bump in the county because Wisconsin is a “high-attendance team.” Republicans should root for Michigan State to go into Camp Randall Stadium and win.
4. Georgia over Florida
Florida’s defense has been lights-out, but their offense has been inconsistent, which means Georgia can win the rivalry game referred to as “the world’s largest outdoor cocktail party.” Obama won Alachua County in Florida 2008, 60% to 39%, and a Florida win would give him a three-point bump in the county. Republicans must win Florida, without which there is no path to the White House for Romney.
5. Baylor over Iowa State
Obama won Story County in Iowa in 2008, 57% to 40%, and an Iowa State win could give Obama a 1.5-point bump in the county from where he currently stands.
6. Duke over Florida State
Duke, under head coach David Cutcliffe, became bowl-eligible last week. And while it may be an impossible task to go into Doak Campbell Stadium and beat the Seminoles, it is not as impossible as it once would have been for Duke. Obama won Leon County in 2008, 62% to 38%, and a Florida State win would give Obama a three-point bump in the county.
7. Oregon over Colorado
Obama won Boulder County, 72% to 26%. But there is no reason to believe Oregon will not crush Colorado in Eugene, Oregon. Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas may score more points himself than the Buffalos, which means Obama will most likely not get a three-point bump in Boulder County.
8. San Diego State over UNLV
Obama won Clark County in 2008, 58% to 40%, and needs to squeeze every vote out of that county this year, so Republicans should root for San Diego State.
9. Nebraska over Michigan
Obama won Washtenaw County in Michigan in 2008, 70%-29%, and if Michigan is in play on election day, Obama will need the three-point boost a Michigan victory would give him in that county.
10. Oklahoma over Notre Dame
While Romney will win Indiana, Notre Dame is a national team for many Catholic voters. A Notre Dame win could have the same effect on Catholic voters as a home team’s victory would have on other voters and since blue-collar Catholics in Midwestern swing states may decide the election, a Notre Dame win could benefit Obama ever so slightly. Obama has given Catholics a lot of reasons to vote against him, and a Notre Dame loss may spur those voters to do just that on election day. Boomer!