Every four years the citizens of the United States take part in one of the biggest events in democracy on the planet. Hundreds of millions of people gather to discuss politics and make a rational choice that will set the course of the nation for at least four more years (if not eight). Whatever the outcome of the election may be, the end result is a triumph of democracy.
Or…is it? It turns out that our voting choices are not as rational than we think they are. In fact, they may be influenced by many things that you wouldn’t expect.
Heavy Rains Improve Odds for Republicans
When Al Gore lost Florida during the 2000 election, there were a lot of democrats left wondering why. But if they checked the weather forecast on November 7, 2000, and saw the unseasonably heavy rain in Florida, they would have known. Rain typically gives Republicans a boost.
It may seem strange, but over the past 14 presidential elections, researchers have tracked the weather in 3,115 counties to see if it had affected the outcome. They found that rainfall that was beyond what one would expect for that time of year and the area would result in as much as a 3.8 percent of eligible voters staying at home. Those put off by the weather were almost always democrats.
The democrats tend to attract more “peripheral voters” or those with low political engagement. They also attract poor voters who may not have their own transportation. Faced with a downpour of rain, those two groups would be more likely to stay at home than their highly-motivated republican neighbors.
Sporting Victories Boost the Incumbent
Imagine that it is the day before the election and your favorite team is playing in the game of the season. Before you start your prayers for the team to win, you need to decide who you want to see in the White House for the next four years. Major sporting events will frequently give the ruling party an election boost.
Loyola Marymount University researchers compared college football games from 1964-2008 with local and national elections. They found that the incumbent received an 0.8 percent election boost if the local team had a victory. If the winning team was considered to be an underdog, the effect would be even larger. An unexpected victory could give the ruling party a boost of up to 2.42 percent.
While the numbers may seem small, it could be game changing when it comes to a tight election. Among major sports fans, the effect could be even higher. A study that was performed in 2009 found that college basketball fans gave Obama a 5 percent higher approval rating when their team was on a winning streak.
Looking at the American Flag Can Make You a Centrist
According to the results from a Cornell study, just glancing at the flag can pull voters toward their political center.
The study was brought together by a mix of Israeli hawks and doves. They were asked to rate how highly they agreed with a series of nationalistic statements. Before each statement, there would be a subliminal picture of either the Israeli flag or a “control” flag on the screen.
When the control flag preceded a statement, the statement was generally scored high by the hawks and low by the doves. When the Israeli flag showed up, both groups converged on a centralized score. This worked when the flag was shown for just 16 milliseconds.
When researchers conducted the experiment during the actual election, they saw the same effect. People who saw a flag beforehand tended to vote for centrist candidates.
A Candidate’s Face Can Influence How You Vote
If you ask what voters value most in a president, they will usually say “Competence”. What do they mean by that? It could mean anything from having years of political experience to someone who has a level head. But according to science, what they really mean is “someone who looks trustworthy’.
Studies have shown that we often will judge candidates in the same way that we make a snap judgement about a stranger, by glancing at their faces and deciding if they look right or not. When the University of Lausanne performed a study, they had 684 Swiss students judge past French parliamentary candidates based on their photos alone. The students predicted the winner 72 percent of the time. In the cases where the students decided that one candidate “definitely” looked more competent, that person was more likely to have won by a landslide.