Personal Emotions and Political Decision Making: Implications for Voter Competence

48 Pages Posted: 12 Aug 2009

See all articles by Neil A. Malhotra

Neil A. Malhotra

Stanford Graduate School of Business

Andrew Healy

Loyola Marymount University

Cecilia Hyunjung Mo

University of California, Berkeley

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: July 11, 2009


According to what criteria do citizens make political decisions, and what do these criteria say about democratic competence? An impressive body of evidence suggests that voters competently evaluate diagnostic information such as macroeconomic trends and their personal financial circumstances to reward good performance while ridding themselves of leaders who are corrupt, incompetent, or ineffective. However, what if some voters’ personal emotional reactions to events completely unrelated to public affairs influence their voting decisions? The conflation of personal emotions with political cognition challenges traditional conceptions of citizen competence and democratic accountability. We explore whether emotional reactions unrelated to incumbent performance affect voting behavior by assessing the electoral impact of local college football games, events that government has nothing to do with and for which no government response would be expected. On average, a win before Election Day 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 with a survey conducted during the 2009 NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament, where we find that sports-induced emotional change affects approval of President Obama and assessments of the health of the country. Voters’ decisions and attitudes are thus shown to depend considerably on events that affect their personal level of happiness even when those events are entirely disconnected from government activity. Our results provide new evidence on the significant limitations of the electorate’s capacity to hold elected officials accountable for their actions.

Keywords: elections, politics

Suggested Citation

Malhotra, Neil A. and Healy, Andrew J. and Mo, Cecilia Hyunjung, Personal Emotions and Political Decision Making: Implications for Voter Competence (July 11, 2009). Stanford University Graduate School of Business Research Paper No. 2034, Available at SSRN: or

Neil A. Malhotra (Contact Author)

Stanford Graduate School of Business ( email )

655 Knight Way
Stanford, CA 94305-5015
United States

Andrew J. Healy

Loyola Marymount University ( email )

7900 Loyola Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90045-8350
United States

Cecilia Hyunjung Mo

University of California, Berkeley

310 Barrows Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

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