Like all human behaviors, voting can't be entirely reduced to an abstract set of numbers. An emerging body of research suggests voting is also affected by human whims, quirks and emotional crosscurrents.
If President Obama wins Franklin County, Ohio — a critical locale in a critical swing state — on Tuesday, he might want to write a thank-you note to Ohio State’s football team. The Buckeyes defeated Penn State last week, enhancing Obama’s chances of taking central Ohio.
This isn’t a guess. It’s science — social science. Research shows that voters in a college team’s home county tend to reward the incumbent presidential candidate after the local team wins two weeks before the election. The effect is often significant.
When it comes to predicting voter behavior, academics, pundits and reporters tend to focus on the big stuff: party affiliation, incumbent approval ratings, the state of the economy. All good. But like all human behaviors, voting can’t be entirely reduced to an abstract set of numbers. As an emerging body of research suggests, voting reflects the same whims, quirks and emotional crosscurrents that make humans such unpredictable creatures.
Seemingly irrelevant things — where you vote, which team won Saturday, what order the candidates’ names appear on the ballot, etc. — all have small but measurable effects on voting outcomes, social scientists say. In an election expected to be as close as this one, small things can turn into very big things.
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Take football games. The performance of a bunch of muscled behemoths would seem about as important to a presidential vote as whether you burned your toast this morning. Which is why it was the perfect variable for a 2010 study, “Irrelevant Events Affect Voters’ Evaluations of Government Performance.”
Researchers at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and Stanford University’s business school sought to test whether an otherwise random and seemingly arbitrary event — the outcome of college football games — showed any correlation with the results of presidential, Senate and gubernatorial elections.
It did, consistently, in every election between 1964 and 2008. On average, the researchers found, a victory by a hometown team 10 days before the election resulted in incumbents receiving an additional 1.61 percentage points of the vote in the team’s county. A victory by an avidly followed, perpetual powerhouse team (say, Ohio State) had an even more significant effect, as much as 3.35 percentage points.
Why? The results suggest the emotional state of voters is an important component in understanding their behavior, says Stanford professor Neil Malhotra, one of the study’s authors. If they feel good, that can translate into how they vote. And if they feel good when they vote, they generally reward the incumbent, the embodiment of the status quo, he says.
To test this theory, Malhotra and colleagues did a parallel experiment involving NCAA basketball fans. They asked people who identified themselves as fans of teams that had advanced to the NCAA championship tournament’s later rounds in 2009 to rate Obama’s job performance. Result: The further the respondents’ teams advanced, the higher their approval of Obama. Another recent study found a relatively high correlation between local sports teams’ success and mayoral re-election rates.
Assessing voters’ emotional states can be tricky. A new study purporting to show a link between menstrual cycles and women’s voting patterns has been questioned — well, trashed — by some researchers; a news article about it was recently removed from CNN.com amid an outcry. Nevertheless, one of the study’s authors, Kristina Durante of the University of Texas, San Antonio, says she stands by her findings.
Other behavioral research has plied less-controversial territory. Studies about the effect of a candidate’s location on the ballot, for example, stretch back for decades. Generally speaking, having your name listed first seems to convey a marginal but important advantage, especially in elections in which the candidates aren’t well-known.
Where you vote can also influence how you vote, too. People who voted at a poll within a school in Arizona in 2000, for example, were more likely to support a state initiative to increase funding for education than people who voted elsewhere, according to a 2008 study. The effect wasn’t huge — 55 percent of school-based voters supported the measure versus 53.1 percent overall — but it was significant. It also persisted when researchers zeroed in on where voters lived, their party identity or age or gender.
Thomas Holbrook, a political-science professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, emotion is a real and important factor in an election. Holbrook is one of many academics who model elections to predict their outcome. The models typically use variables such as economic growth and presidential-approval polls. But at their core, those aren’t much different as measures of sentiment than football games.
“Elections,” he says, “are basically about how satisfied people are.”
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg backed President Obama over Republican Mitt Romney on Thursday, saying the incumbent Democrat will bring critically needed leadership to fight climate change after the East Coast devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy.
The endorsement was a major boost for Obama, who is spending the campaign’s final days trying to win over independent voters whose voices will be critical in determining the winner Tuesday.
Both candidates had sought Bloomberg’s backing. But the billionaire businessman and former Republican said the possibility that Sandy resulted from climate change had made the stakes of the election that much clearer. “We need leadership from the White House, and over the past four years, President Barack Obama has taken major steps to reduce our carbon consumption,” Bloomberg wrote in an online opinion piece.
The Associated Press