msnbc | October 13, 2012
>>> forget how the presidential candidates stand on taxes, abortion and immigration. it turns out what really matters to voters is football and sharks. a new piece from reuters finds the deciding factor for many voters in key swing states like ohio and florida is how the buckeyes play the saturday before election day and how many shark attacks there've been off the sunshine state 's beaches. joining me is reuters correspondent andy sullivan, who wrote this very interesting article, andy with a welcome and good morning to you. i know winston churchill said that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. your article really makes me think that he had a point there and i have to say i was somewhat depressed reading your article.
>> yeah. it's not the most uplifting set of findings here. i mean, we like to think that what voters do is they examine the issues, they figure out where they stand on, you know, gay marriage , taxes and medicare and then they figure out which candidate best reflects their views. but that appears not to be the case. in fact, gabriel lenz at the university of california berkeley told me that it's often the other way around. voters will pick a candidate, and then they'll sort of line up their own views to line up with that candidate's views.
>> isn't that interesting? can we talk specifically about football and sharks. how exactly do they affect the election?
>> yeah. well that gets to this notion that, you remember ronald reagan famously asked are you better off now than you were four years ago. and the idea that voters are supposed to view the election as a referendum on the incumbent. and there's a substantial amount of evidence that shows that this is, in fact, what they do do. but, they're not very good at looking over the old, you know, the whole four years of an incumbent's term. if they're looking at the economy, they tend to base their decision on the last six months or a year. so this may actually play into obama 's favor, because, while the economy's been pretty terrible over the past four years it's growing a little bit now. you know, you've got gdp growth at like 2%. and that could be enough just to give him a narrow victory. but a lot of voters hold incumbents accountable for stuff they have no control over. whether it's the weather, or things like completely random events like shark attacks or football games .
>> when you talk about what happened to woodrow wilson . all the shark attacks off new jersey in his election and people thought it was his fault, when you write a true definition of a natural disaster .
>> there's a spate of shark attacks off the coast of new jersey. people get all freaked out and everybody cancels their hotel reservations and said we're that going to the beach this summer because we'll get chewed up by a shark . so there's a bit of a recession there and the federal government , could the federal government help? and woodrow wilson called a cabinet meeting together and said no we really can't do much about shark attacks. and when the election came around that fall wilson did eight points worse in those beach towns that were affected by the shark attacks than in the rest of new jersey.
>> okay and football games , literally, if your team is winning, a small town team, you had something like a 1.6% uptick in vote for the incumbent because they feel like, hey, everything's going well. that can make a big difference in places where like ohio state football , places like that gators football, in florida. right?
>> right. and i think what these studies show, what the people were trying to do is separate things like the economy, and foreign affairs . you know, stuff that a president can control from things that they have no control over. and they find that like a lot of voters, if they're feeling pretty good, because the local team won, or if they're not getting chewed up by a shark , then they're more likely to stick with the incumbent than vote for the other guy.
>> here's another thing that i did. you cited this new pew center study on election knowledge and some of the numbers here are pretty startling. only 39% of registered voters know that john roberts is the supreme court chief justice . 40% know republicans control the house. 60% know mitt romney was governor of massachusetts . 85% know that joe biden is the vice president. so my question for you, andy , who are these 15% registered voters who do not know the name of the vice president?
>> well, these are the people who are going to decide the election, of course. the people who know the least about politics obviously don't follow it very closely and they tend not to have fully formed views. these are people who are known as end pend voters and swing voters . the people who really follow politics closely, have already made up their minds and decided whether they're going to vote for obama or romney. but there's a flip side to this. that's voters with very strong partisan views tend to know a lot but filter things through their own -- they tend to find information that reinforces their pre-existing point of view. and so they know stuff but often what they know is wrong. like this is why you still see a number of republicans who believe that obama was born abroad. even though he's released his birth certificate. or ten years ago you had a lot of democrats saying george bush knew about the 9/11 attacks before they happened. which he clearly didn't.
>> yeah, it's a fascinating article. if i could give out a must-read i'd say this is the one to read. andy sullivan, thank you for joining us.
>> my pleasure.