College football, elections, and false-positive results in observational research

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 Nov 10;112(45):13800-4. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1502615112. Epub 2015 Oct 26.


A recent, widely cited study [Healy AJ, Malhotra N, Mo CH (2010) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 107(29):12804-12809] finds that college football games influence voting behavior. Victories within 2 weeks of an election reportedly increase the success of the incumbent party in presidential, senatorial, and gubernatorial elections in the home county of the team. We reassess the evidence and conclude that there is likely no such effect, despite the fact that Healy et al. followed the best practices in social science and used a credible research design. Multiple independent sources of evidence suggest that the original finding was spurious-reflecting bad luck for researchers rather than a shortcoming of American voters. We fail to estimate the same effect when we leverage situations where multiple elections with differing incumbent parties occur in the same county and year. We also find that the purported effect of college football games is stronger in counties where people are less interested in college football, just as strong when the incumbent candidate does not run for reelection, and just as strong in other parts of the state outside the home county of the team. Lastly, we detect no effect of National Football League games on elections, despite their greater popularity. We conclude with recommendations for evaluating surprising research findings and avoiding similar false-positive results.

Keywords: elections; false-positive results; voting.

Publication types

  • Comment

MeSH terms

  • Decision Making*
  • Emotions*
  • Government*
  • Humans
  • Politics*