Can Football Games Predict the Presidential Election?

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The Presidential election is just a day away and we all know that most polls show the two candidates in a statistical tie. It's going to come down to those all important swing states (can't we just get rid of the electoral college? if for no other reason than to spare  residents of Ohio the barrage of fall campaign ads). It seems with this close of a margin everyone has a theory about which party will emerge victorious.

Some election theories are definitely suspect but one I read this weekend seems to have some credence. A 2010 study by a trio of economists shows that there may be a correlation between the outcome of an election and the results of college football games the previous Saturday.

Recent research has revealed that voter irrationality may be more arbitrary than we think. And in a razor-thin election just enough irrationality can make all the difference. Just how irrational are voters? It is statistically possible that the outcome of a handful of college football games in the right battleground states could determine the race for the White House.

Economists Andrew Healy, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Mo make this argument in a fascinating article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. They examined whether the outcomes of college football games on the eve of elections for presidents, senators, and governors affected the choices voters made. They found that a win by the local team, in the week before an election, raises the vote going to the incumbent by around 1.5 percentage points. When it comes to the 20 highest attendance teams—big athletic programs like the University of Michigan, Oklahoma, and Southern Cal—a victory on the eve of an election pushes the vote for the incumbent up by 3 percentage points. That's a lot of votes, certainly more than the margin of victory in a tight race. And these results aren't based on just a handful of games or political seasons; the data were taken from 62 big-time college teams from 1964 to 2008.


While the football theory may initially seem ridiculous, it makes a lot of sense when you think about it. For many undecided voters the decision comes down to how their life is at the time. If things are going well, odds are they'll vote for the incumbent. If life is rough, then it may be time for a change.

Credit Image: © Eric Albrecht/MCT/

In the aforementioned study, a team of researchers looked at college football scores over 42 years and compared them to county-level election results. They found that wins by the old alma mater in the 10 days before an election can boost the incumbent party's vote by a little over 1% in the surrounding county.

Ohio State's game against Illinois this weekend was particularly important. Not only is Ohio considered a must-win state for Republican challenger Mitt Romney, but No 6 Ohio State University is a football powerhouse -- a high-attendance, championship-caliber team whose wins had an even bigger impact in the study. Combined with a win last week over Penn State, a win could boost Obama's vote by about 2.5% in Franklin County.

Guess what? Ohio routed Illinois 53-22 on Saturday. And the Buckeye's win may just determine the outcome of the election. The states of Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Virginia are considered to be critical swing states for both candidates and the number of Ohio fans may have a significant impact on Tuesday's election.

Florida, another crucial electoral state, held off Mizzou 14-7 on Saturday. So can the Buckeyes and the Gators really determine the election? The stats are convincing.

Then again, there's the Redskins Rule.

Would you give up a team win to have your candidate elected?


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