Euphoria and Retrospective Voting
Posted: 18 May 2009
Date Written: May 12, 2009
The extant literature generally presumes that voters who engage in retrospective voting are evaluating incumbents based upon their performance in office. Indeed, the empirical relationship between the health of the economy and incumbent reelection prospects is well documented. However, another explanation for this relationship is that voters are inclined to support the status quo when they feel personally satisfied or happy. We leverage a natural experiment to explore whether personal happiness unrelated to incumbent performance affects voting behavior: the outcome of the local college football team’s games right before Election Day, an event that government has nothing to do with and for which no government response could possibly be expected. We collected football scores from 1964-2006, as well as county-level election returns for presidential, gubernatorial, and senatorial elections. On average, a pre-election win causes the incumbent to receive about one percentage point more of the vote, with the effect being larger for teams with stronger fan support. We corroborate these aggregate-level results using a survey conducted during the 2009 NCAA Men's College Basketball Tournament. Voters' decisions depend significantly on events that affect their personal level of happiness even when those events are disconnected from government activity, a fact that has important implications for our conception of political accountability in democratic societies.
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