In the near future, two implacably opposed forces will collide in Ohio. The two sides are backed by long-suffering supporters hailing from places that have not always been served well by the last decade—or decades. Many of them have been left behind by triumphs in other parts of the country, but hope the right outcome in November could mark a change of luck. The result, either way, will be historic.
I speak not of the presidential election, but of the World Series, pitting the Cleveland Indians against the Chicago Cubs. But what if the outcome on the baseball field could influence the results at the voting booth?
Sure, coverage of elections increasingly resembles SportsCenter, but that’s not the issue at hand. Because social scientists have too much free time on their hands or because they are sports fans—but we repeat ourselves—there’s some research into the connection between the results of sporting contests and the results of elections.
Political scientists often counterpose pocketbook voting—am I better off than I was four years ago?—and sociotropic voting: Are things better in general than they were four years ago? Sports seems to affect sociotropic voting patterns, making voters feel better in general and then aiding incumbents. The most directly useful study is by Andrew J. Healy, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, who sought out to explore how “irrelevant” events can have a bearing on the way voters decide. They started with local college-football games:
We find that a win in the 10 d[ays] before Election Day causes the incumbent to receive an additional 1.61 percentage points of the vote in Senate, gubernatorial, and presidential elections, with the effect being larger for teams with stronger fan support. In addition to conducting placebo tests based on postelection games, we demonstrate these effects by using the betting market's estimate of a team's probability of winning the game before it occurs to isolate the surprise component of game outcomes. We corroborate these aggregate-level results with a survey that we conducted during the 2009 NCAA men's college basketball tournament, where we find that surprising wins and losses affect presidential approval.
Some of the results seem practically comical. During 2009 March Madness, an upset victory by a team translated to a 2.3-percentage point bump in approval of Barack Obama by that team’s fans. For comparison, Obama’s overall approval only went up 7 points when Osama bin Laden was killed. (Now, imagine if Obama had managed to kill Duke. That’d be good for at least a double-digit rise.)
In another study, Michael K. Miller studied 39 mayoral elections in American cities between 1948 and 2009 and found that the wins produced a larger effect even than unemployment rates, a commonly used metric for electoral predictions: “Winning sports records boost incumbents’ vote totals and likelihoods of reelection, exceeding in magnitude the effect of variation in unemployment.”
That offers us some rough ideas about how important game results can be to elections, but it requires some extrapolation and guess work, since there’s not a true incumbent in the presidential race, and since neither study covers baseball.
Really, a win for either the Cubs or the Indians would be somewhat unexpected. Both teams have had strong seasons, though the Cubs entered the season as a juggernaut, while the Indians have been consistently underestimated. Nonetheless, both teams are famously hapless. The Indians last won a championship in 1948, and has only gotten far enough to lose in 1954, 1995, and 1997. Yet the Tribe’s track record of futility pales in comparison to their rivals. The Cubs haven’t won a Fall Classic since 1908; they haven’t even appeared in one since 1945.
But for the purposes of this exercise, the Cubs’ fortunes are largely irrelevant. A win for the Cubs might break a longer drought, but it’s hard to imagine it having much effect on the election, since Illinois is a lock for the Democrat, Hillary Clinton. There could be some downballot effects, though. In the U.S. Senate race, Mark Kirk, the Republican incumbent, is expected to lose to Democrat Tammy Duckworth, but a Cubs win might give him a little wind at his back. Cubs territory also stretches into Indiana, a solid-red state, and one where there’s no incumbent in either the Senate or gubernatorial elections; and west into a small portion of Iowa, a closely contested swing state.
More important is what happens in the Ohio election. The state is always a closely fought swing state, and this year it has swung back and forth, with Donald Trump, the Republican, looking like the probable winner, only to see his standing erode in the last couple of weeks. FiveThirtyEight now gives Clinton a small edge in the state. No Republican has ever been elected without winning Ohio. When Democrats win, they do so by running up their margins in a few urban centers—especially Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland.
If the Indians were to win the World Series, one would expect it to be a boost for the Clinton campaign. (It is, however, only a coincidence that the team plays at Progressive Field.) First, it would be unexpected: The Cubs are heavy favorites coming into the series. Second, while there is no incumbent in the race, Clinton is seeking to replace a president from her own party, meaning warm feelings about the status quo would redound to help her. If the series took all seven games, the Fall Classic would end on November 2 in Cleveland, and six days later still-jubilant Clevelanders might jauntily skip to the polls to vote Clinton.
“With a small percentage of people who are on the fence, that could be the extra little piece of the puzzle that will get them to the polls,” says Edward Horowitz, a professor of political communication at Cleveland State University. “Ohio is very tight right now. In a very close election, 1 percent of the vote, a half a percent of the vote can make a difference.”
If the Indians lose, however, one would expect it would feed anti-incumbent feeling and give Trump a boost—plus it might drive down turnout among glum Tribe fans in Cuyahoga County.
Horowitz speculated that even if the Indians can’t break their dry spell, though, Clinton may already be enjoying some sociotropic bounce in the Forest City.
“Here in Cuyahoga County, people are unbelievably excited about the Tribe being in the World Series,” he said. “There’s sort of a sense around here that this is Cleveland’s year, from the Cavs [winning the NBA Championship in June] to successfully hosting the Republican National Convention to the Indians doing so well. It’s like Cleveland has officially made the turnaround from the Mistake on the Lake to being one of America’s prime cities.”
Since the Indians have had so little championship success, it’s hard to find good parallels to the present day, but that 1948 win might shed some light. The 1948 Indians had limped to the World Series, only winning the pennant in a one-game playoff—although by some accounts, they were seen as favorites over the Boston Braves. The Indians won the series in six games, wrapping up on October 11 (the season, and the postseason, were shorter then.) A month later, incumbent Harry S Truman defeated Thomas Dewey in one of the great upsets in modern history—and he did so while carrying the state of Ohio.
Clinton grew up in the Chicago suburbs and is a lifelong Cubs fan, but over the years, her allegiance has seemed to waver for political reasons, including a flirtation with the Yankees during her time running for office and serving in New York. If there were ever a time to be Cubs fan, it would be now, with the team’s return to the World Series. But if there were ever a time for Clinton to put political expedience over longtime loyalty, this might be it, too. However much joy a Cubs win might bring the girl from Park Ridge, an Indians win could hand her the White House.