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Irrational Events Affect Voters -- Why College Football Matters

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

While most political pundits follow polls, they might want to start following college football.

I first learned about the efficient market hypothesis when studying for the Chartered Financial Analyst exam 20 years ago. The efficient market hypothesis states that markets are rational, and information is rapidly absorbed and reflected in the market.

This was an intellectually compelling hypothesis, based on the belief that humans rapidly process information and act rationally.

This same hypothesis is often applied to the political arena -- voters receive, assimilate and process information regarding candidates and vote for one based on his or her record and policy platform.

But watch out, sports fans -- what one thinks and what happens are not always the same.

A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides "evidence that voting decisions are influenced by irrelevant events that have nothing to do with the competence or effectiveness of the incumbent government."

In "Affective Voting: Irrelevant Events Affect Voters' Evaluations of Government Performance," lead author Andrew J. Healy of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles shows that voters' decisions can be affected by all sorts of events.

The first irrelevant event studied was local college football games. One might believe that since the government is not involved in the outcome of these games, their outcomes should not affect elections.

But they did.

The study looked at college football games played within 10 days of presidential, gubernatorial and Senate elections from 1964 to 2006. Though there was no impact on turnout, a win translated into an additional 1.6 percentage points for the incumbent or for the candidate from the incumbent's party. The authors hypothesized that the increase in votes was driven by an increase in voters' sense of satisfaction with the status quo driven by the team's win.

When only "powerhouse teams" were included (those that had won a championship since 1964 or those ranked in the top 20 based on attendance from 1998 to 2007), the effect was greater -- wins by championship teams and high-attendance teams translated into an increase of 2.3 percentage points and 2.42 percentage points, respectively, for the incumbent, or for the incumbent party's candidate.

This spillover effect, leading from a feeling of well-being after a team's win to positively affect the incumbent's vote, also held true for presidential approval ratings. The authors also conducted a survey during the 2009 NCAA Men's College Basketball Tournament. "Each additional adjusted win experienced by respondents significantly increased approval of President Obama's job performance, with the effect size being 2.3 percentage points," noted the report.

The researchers went a step further to see if the effect was conscious or subconscious and found it was a subconscious influence. "The results show that making the game outcomes salient eliminated their impacts," they wrote. "By moving subconscious considerations into the forefront, the experimental prime allowed people to decouple their mood change induced by their team's fortune from the political object of judgment."

If people understood that the reason they felt better was due to a team win and not due to an incumbent's performance, they were able to "reject irrelevant information since people understand that their current state of well-being is unrelated to an incumbent's performance in office."

During Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, Democratic political adviser James Carville coined the phrase, "It's the economy stupid." This proved a turning point in the campaign, refocusing the electorate on the economy and recent recession rather than on President George H.W. Bush's successes in foreign policy.

Based on their research, the authors believe that the effect of the economy on voting is "not about rational voters processing relevant information ... . Voters' general sense of well-being serves as a conduit between the state of the economy and electoral outcomes." Their takeaway -- how the economy affects voters' sense of well-being -- is what is important.

As we move into the 2010 elections this fall, we might want to keep in mind the effect that irrelevant events may have on our actions. And if college football season is not enough, we may also want to brace ourselves for the issues and ads that will be created by political consultants to try to affect our votes by toying with our emotions.

The current financial crisis has led many to criticize and rethink the efficient market hypothesis. This season, we need to critically process and rethink what should and should not affect our votes.

I can't wait until college football season.

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