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Obama's Olympic Bump

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"Americans love a winner" -- General George S. Patton

Michael Phelps. Abby Wambach. Kerri Walsh. Allyson Felix. Gabby Douglas. These are just a few of the many American winners from 2012 Olympic Games. But the biggest winner of all may be Barack Obama.

The Olympic Games, for all of their spirit of international brotherhood and competition, seem peculiarly designed to induce patriotic spirit. Over the course of two weeks we cheer for hundreds of athletes draped in our national colors, struggling for a chance to break into tears while listening to our national anthem, and trying to defeat our international rivals. When we saw David Boudia finally break the Chinese stranglehold on diving gold medals by winning the men's 10m platform on the final night of competition, a lot of Americans went to bed that night feeling just a little more patriotic than if they had watched a Giants game instead.

This widespread patriotic sentiment may affect more than just sales of Team USA T-shirts. After all, psychological research over the last twenty years has shown that our mood has a profound impact on our beliefs and preferences, even in seemingly unrelated matters. It is well known among realtors that the warm feelings associated with the scent of baking cookies at an open house can encourage prospective home buyers to make higher bids. And this scales up from individual home buyers to entire nations. Finance professor Alex Edmans and his colleagues have demonstrated that a country's loss in a World Cup soccer match (or other major sporting event) can lead to a drop in the stock market.

Which brings us back to the effects of these patriotic sentiments. Since the Summer Olympics occur every four years and happen to coincide with our presidential elections, it allows for a natural field experiment: Do the good feelings created by the perpetual American dominance during the Summer Games affect the presidential election? Based on some preliminary analysis: absolutely.

Obama gained on Romney more during the two weeks of the Olympics than any other two week interval since Romney was selected as GOP nominee (despite the bad economy and rising gas prices). During the 2004 Olympics George W. Bush gained four points on Kerry. And Bill Clinton gained a whopping five points on Bob Dole during the 1996 Olympics. Incumbent presidents seem to receive a significant boost in the polls simply due to the performance of American athletes.

The larger point here is that our collective, irrational feelings about the candidates drive our votes more than any rational issues-based calculus. This is a point that even our best political analysts often get wrong. Statistician Nate Silver, who understands polling better than almost anyone else working in the media today, recently pondered why Obama's poll numbers have gone up over the past few weeks, and concluded that it was likely just a statistical anomaly.

"There hasn't really been a lot of news to drive something on the order of a three-point swing toward Mr. Obama. There have been far more momentous news events at earlier stages of the campaign, like the Supreme Court's ruling on Mr. Obama's health care bill, or the set of poor jobs reports in April through June, that didn't seem to move the numbers much at all....

... But has Mr. Obama gained three points, at a time when most ordinary Americans are watching the Olympics? Probably not."

But Mr. Silver has it backwards. It is precisely because most ordinary Americans are watching the Olympics that Obama's poll numbers have gone up. In a world of rational voters, factors like job reports and Supreme Court decisions would influence the attitudes of the electorate. But we don't live in a world of rational voters; we live in a world of human voters.

Human voters don't read job reports, but they do know whether their own job is safe and whether their neighbors are out of work. Human voters don't cast their votes based on the issues (numerous studies show that most Americans don't even know where the candidates stand on the issues), but they know whether they like a candidate and whether they think they can trust him/her. Human voters don't understand the Supreme Court's health care ruling, but they do understand that American athletes just won 104 Olympic medals (including 46 gold medals), and they feel pretty good about being an American right now.

Of course, the idea that patriotic feelings can drive poll results is not exactly new. There is a well-known phenomenon called the "Rally Around The Flag Effect," in which patriotic fervor immediately after declaring war can cause a spike in popularity for the president. However, while one could make the argument that there are rational reasons to support the president during times of war, supporting the incumbent because of Michael Phelps's new gold medal record is harder to justify.

Every four years, American athletes dominate at the Summer Olympics, and every four years this leads to a bump in the polls for the incumbent president. Unfortunately for President Obama, the Olympics are now over, and that patriotic sprit has three months to dissipate before the election. But even though the Olympic Bump may fade, voters will remain human, and public opinion will continue to be driven by passion more than policy.

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UCLA Anderson Marketing Professor Danny Oppenheimer and political blogger Mike Edwards are the authors of "Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System that Shouldn't Work at All Works So Well".

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