Should Incumbents Root For The Home Team?


Electoral science is a constantly evolving discipline, but the ultimate objective behind its increasingly technical, exponentially more sophisticated methodologies remains unchanged: Get the most votes.

To that end, campaigns leave no stone unturned – whether it involves the data-driven micro-targeting of voters, the meticulous researching of opponents’ financial disclosures or the placement of media across multiple platforms in the final days of a campaign.  And as close races come down to the wire, campaigns look for any and every advantage that could push their candidate or issue across the finish line.

Which leads us to an interesting question: As they dissect polls, launch or react to last-minute surprises and prepare their final GOTV efforts – should they also be keeping an eye on college football scoreboards?  And no, this is not a discussion of the famous “Washington Redskins presidential conspiracy” – a since-debunked notion which posited that a Redskins win on the Sunday before the election meant victory for the incumbent party.

It’s long been believed that a “win” by the home team on the weekend before an election puts voters in a better mood when Tuesday rolls around – and that their resulting good humor translates into a small advantage for the incumbent party.

In fact a widely cited 2010 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that a win by the home team “causes the incumbent to receive an additional 1.61 percentage points of the vote in Senate, gubernatorial, and presidential elections, with the effect being larger for teams with stronger fan support.”

Is it true though?

“Not so fast,” as ESPN’s College Gameday host Lee Corso is fond of saying.  According to political scientist Anthony Fowler of the University of Chicago and Pablo Montagnes of Emory University in Atlanta, there is no correlation between football outcomes and political campaigns.

“We reassess the evidence and conclude that there is likely no such effect,” Fowler and Montagnes wrote in PNAS this week.  “Multiple independent sources of evidence suggest that the original finding was spurious – reflecting bad luck for researchers rather than a shortcoming of American voters.”

The two pored through more than five decades of electoral and gridiron results – and added National Football League (NFL) games to the mix in addition to college contests in their effort to spot the trend.

“We fail to estimate the same effect when we leverage situations where multiple elections with differing incumbent parties occur in the same county and year,” Fowler and Montagnes added.  “We also find that the purported effect of college football games is stronger in counties where people are less interested in college football, just as strong when the incumbent candidate does not run for reelection, and just as strong in other parts of the state outside the home county of the team. Lastly, we detect no effect of National Football League games on elections, despite their greater popularity. We conclude with recommendations for evaluating surprising research findings and avoiding similar false-positive results.”

Of interest?  The researchers who conducted the 2010 report stood by their original conclusions, saying the new study only shows that the football effect “is not something that happens all the time, in every circumstance.”

In other words, we should probably expect candidates and political operatives to continue giving this theory its due – irrespective of whether it has any basis in reality.