The polls indicate that the race is tightening up. Obama seems to have a lead in the Electoral College, although even that is less assured today than in was three weeks ago. It is increasingly likely that either the national vote total or the Electoral College be decided by a very small percentage of voters.
So with that in mind, here are some things that could change the outcome of the election in any given state. None of these things have anything at all to do with policy, leadership style, resume, or really anything that ought to be relevant in a rational sense. And yet, if the election is close, any one of them could determine who becomes President of the United States.
When It Rains, It Pours
There are some voters who will vote, no matter what else happens. Those voters tend to lean Republican (although this varies wildly depending on where you live). Then there is a much larger group of people that votes in some years, but not in others; these are the people who give pollsters fits, and they tend to lean Democrat (although, again, this varies wildly depending on where you live). Bad weather (rain, snow or cold) can cause fewer people in that second group to vote; after all, when the weather outside is nasty, who wants to go out in it, unless they are particularly committed? The lesson: Romney is more likely to win Ohio if it rains (or snows) across that state on Nov. 6.
Who Wants to Go First?
People are lazy, and not just in a "too lazy to get off the couch and work out" kind of way. They are also lazy in a "too lazy to read to the end of a sentence" kind of way. We accommodate our laziness by "satisficing" -- picking the first reasonable alternative that we see. This is how some people choose which pair of socks to wear, which jug of milk to buy, and which song to listen to on their iPods. It's also how a small percentage of undecided voters will choose who ought to be president. Candidates get more votes when they are listed first on the ballot than when they are listed second on the ballot, and of course every state determines ballot order differently. In Ohio, ballot order is randomized by precinct. In Florida, Romney will be listed first, because the current governor of Florida is a Republican. In Wisconsin, statewide ballot order is determined by lottery: this year Romney is first and Obama is second.
Don't Worry, Be Happy
As a general rule, the more discontented you feel about the state of the world, the more likely you are to vote for the challenger. The more satisfied and happy you are about the state of the world, the more you are likely to vote for the incumbent. After all, if you are happy with how things are going, the president must be doing something right!
So, if we are making a list of factors that could affect the election, maybe we should make a list of things that make a lot of people who all live in the same place happy at the same time:
- The weather. We already mentioned that bad weather can cause "likely" (or "unlikely," as the case may be) voters to decide that they'd rather stay home, warm and dry. But the weather also has an impact on people's moods. Sunny days make people feel happier; when it's gloomier outside, people feel gloomier inside. And yes, this can actually affect our most important decisions: UMass professor Ed Saunders once demonstrated that a sunny day in New York can cause investor optimism and therefore lead to a bump in the New York Stock Exchange. This means that, once again, Obama is hoping for a sunny day on Tuesday.
- If you live in Columbus, Ohio, what is the best news that you can possibly get during any given fall day? That the Ohio State football team just won, of course! We discussed in a previous blog how American Olympic success leads to better poll numbers for incumbents. Another study has shown that this is true at the local level as well -- when the home team wins on the weekend before the election, incumbents see a small increase in voter support. And for the presidential election, keep an eye on the teams from the battleground states; if you are an Obama supporter, you just may want to root for the Packers over the Cardinals this weekend.
- Traffic. Traffic is worse on some days than others, and tends to affect a large swath of people all at once. And there is no greater source of frustration for anyone with a long commute than a bad traffic day. If a couple of accidents create major gridlock in Denver, Philadelphia, or Richmond on Election Day, that will hurt Obama.
For those of you who are interested in seeing how some of these factors might play out in the battleground states, we've created a handy chart. Use it to see who is gaining the latest "unfair" advantage, so you know exactly what is to blame in case your candidate loses.
Of course, if the election is a blow-out, we can safely say that none of these things mattered. But if the presidency is decided by a couple of percentage points, especially if it is decided by a couple percentage points in a small state... well, then any or all of these things could end up playing a role in determining the next President of the United States. Isn't that a scary thought?
Danny Oppenheimer is an associate professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management. Mike Edwards is the founding contributor of Leftfielder.org, a blog on politics and media. Both are co-authors of Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn't Work at All Works So Well .