Americans generally like to think that they select their leaders with fairly clear minds. Yet, convincing evidence suggests that the opposite is true. In fact, a recent study suggests that voters punish and reward politicians for things as trivial as sports games.
When local powerhouse teams win major sporting events within two weeks of an election, the incumbent party sees a spike in support by more than 2%. Though this seems to be a fairly small figure, it actually has immense significance. In 2016, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Florida by only 1.2 points. The incumbent, President Obama, had endorsed Clinton and also won the state himself in 2012 against Mitt Romney.
Florida Election Day Sports
The state of Florida has three football teams: the Jaguars, Buccaneers, and Dolphins. Leading up to the day of the election, these teams lost four of their six games. In fact, only the Dolphins came out of the two weeks with victories. The Jaguars and Buccaneers both came away with two crushing losses in a row.
Switching over to baseball, the state did not perform much better. The Miami Marlins finished the 2016 season slightly below .500, and the Tampa Bay Rays were in their division’s cellar, losing nearly 60% of their games. Neither team made the playoffs, let alone the World Series, which ran from October 25th until November 2nd.
What if one of these teams made the World Series or the football teams showed more success? According to the study, Clinton may have seen a surge in votes coming from the state, easily propelling her above Trump’s figures and winning her 29 delegates.
Results in Pennsylvania
Moving to Pennsylvania, the exact same trend is prevalent, if not even more apparent. In 2016, President Trump won the state by a mere 0.72%. But just as was true in Florida, the state faced an incumbent Democrat President who had won both the state and the national election in 2012. Let’s now look at how the major sports teams were performing.
Similarly to Florida, Pennsylvania has multiple professional teams in both football and baseball. And, also like Florida, the teams performed abysmally in the runup to the 2016 election. In football, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles both lost their games in the two weeks before the polls, going a combined 0-4. Moreover, both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies finished their baseball seasons with subpar records below .500, and neither team made the postseason.
Once more, the study would likely predict that if these teams performed better in their respective leagues, then they would have given Clinton a boost in popularity at the polls. With such a close margin and even more abysmal sports performances, it is incredibly likely that sports victories would have taken Trump’s 20 delegates in Pennsylvania away.
Impacts on Trump in 2016
What does this mean for the election as a whole? Well, in order to win the presidency, a candidate needs to get 270 of the 538 available delegates. In the end, Trump received 306 pledged votes (a few were faithless, but this is not statistically significant here). But, if the Florida and Pennsylvania sports teams had won their games leading up to the election, then it is entirely possible that Trump would have lost both of the states, for a total of 49 delegates.
At this point, his total falls far below the necessary 270, leaving only 257. Clinton, on the other hand, would have seen a 49 delegate increase to her total of 232, resulting in a 281 delegate victory for the former Secretary of State. Therefore, something as simple as sports performances in two states has the ability to greatly influence the outcome of an election. What, then, are the real values of voting and democracy in America?
Without a doubt, both take a position far less significant than most people believe. This is especially true when considering the fact that sports events are not the only apolitical occurrences to negatively impact figures of political power. In fact, many acts of nature, from droughts and floods to shark attacks, all can have considerable effects. This comes in spite of the fact that they, much like sports games, have no tangible relationship to the government. American political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels outline this in a 2004 paper, “Blind Retrospection Electoral Responses to Drought, Flu, and Shark Attacks.”
In the paper, Achen and Bartels make the case that a series of famous shark attacks in New Jersey in 1916 directly influenced a reduction in votes to Woodrow Wilson in Jersey Shore counties. After controlling for Wilson’s success in the 1912 election, as well as the increasing number of immigrant voters in the area, their results were as follows:
The estimated negative effect on Wilson’s vote in the beach counties is a little more than 3 percentage points, with a 95% confidence interval confined between 1.2 and 5.2. The shark attacks indeed seem to have had an impact—about one-fourth the effect that the Great Depression had on Herbert Hoover’s vote in New Jersey 16 years later.
Thus, it appears that the natural disaster effect from these shark attacks is even more statistically significant than that of the sports teams in 2016. Granted, the attacks affected a smaller area, and Wilson nonetheless won the race despite losing considerable ground in New England. However, the point clearly stands that in several examples, voters can act very irrationally. Though football (and other apolitical situations) obviously isn’t the only thing that determines the outcome of elections, it certainly is a major factor that could have changed the results of the last one.
The 2020 Football Decision?
Of course, this phenomenon does not uniquely affect the 2016 election; the point of the study is that it occurs on a nearly universal level. Looking forward, 2020 looks like it could be a tight race. Could football play another major role?
According to the study, this just might be the case. Florida, in particular, has a history of being decided by a very narrow margin. Once again, it clearly was within the study’s effect in 2016. The same is true in 2012; Florida went to President Obama by less than a point. And of course, who can forget the controversial results in 2000, when Bush defeated Gore by 537 votes out of six million? What would have happened there if the Dolphins had won or lost a critical game?
Though many Americans place a great deal of pride in the voting process, flaws cut through it like a dagger. If you do still decide to vote, keep in mind: your favorite team has a hell of a lot more influence than your pencil mark.
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