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How Monday’s England-Slovakia soccer match just might influence Brexit

- June 17, 2016

On June 23, 2016, U.K. voters will decide whether to leave or remain part of the European Union. In the three days before that vote, England, Wales and Northern Ireland all play their final group games in the 2016 European soccer championships.

Do sporting results affect elections? Evidence from the past suggests that, for England’s 53 million voters in particular, the result of this coming Monday’s game against Slovakia could decisively influence an increasingly tight referendum.

While England’s place in the next round is now all but assured, a loss to Slovakia would line up a potential quarter-final showdown with soccer powerhouses Spain or Germany. Defeat against Slovakia could not only hasten England’s exit from Euro 2016, but also may help to push it out of the E.U.

How do sports affect politics?

Every four years the UEFA European Championships come along, a month-long soccer extravaganza with 24 teams from Iceland to Turkey battling for the prize. This year, teams from three of the four British home nations are in France to compete in Euro 2016 (the Scots, sadly, missed out in the qualifying rounds).

Some commentators have wondered whether the shared soccer experience might bond the United Kingdom and Europe more closely than ever before. After the June 11 violence between England and Russia fans after their teams’ first game in Marseille, that theory looks doubtful.

Others have speculated that the tournament could bolster the British public’s sense of national identity, boosting the “Vote Leave” numbers in the referendum. Jumping on the flag-waving bandwagon, the Vote Leave campaign launched a promotion to give £50 million to anyone who could correctly predict all of the championship results.

But a 2010 study by Andrew Healy, Neil Malhotra and Cecilia Mo suggests that the actual results of the games in the run-up to an election could significantly affect the vote.

The authors found that in the 10 days after victories for U.S. local college football teams, the vote share for the incumbent president grew by up to 1.5 percentage points — a potentially decisive amount in a close-run election. The impact was even larger if the win was unexpected. Here’s why — a victory for their team put voters in a good mood, making them feel more positively about their current leaders and therefore more likely to vote to keep them in office.

While some scholars have challenged the Healy study’s findings, a working paper by Northwestern University’s Ethan Busby, James Druckman and Alexandria Frendendall suggests that the effect may be more than just an anomaly. The authors randomly assigned surveys about political attitudes to students at Ohio State University and the University of Oregon just before Ohio’s 42-20 victory over Oregon in the 2015 College Football Playoffs. The results showed that among Ohio State students, approval of the president jumped around 6.5 percent, with a similar drop in approval among Oregon students. Notably, this effect only lasted for around a week, before returning to pre-game levels.

These findings back up what many have suspected about the 1970 British general election, when Harold Wilson’s Labour Party stunningly lost power despite a sizable lead in the polls. Four days earlier, the English reigning champions had blown a sizable 2-0 lead to Germany in the World Cup quarter finals, creating a feeling of “disbelieving despondency” across the nation. As Wilson’s Minister for Sport Denis Howell said in his autobiography, as soon as England conceded the decisive third goal, “everything simultaneously began to go wrong for Labour.”

Will disappointing European Championship results mean less voter confidence in the European Union?

To test how the Healy findings might apply to the European Union, I examined data from surveys taken while teams were battling it out in Euro 2008 matches. Quite coincidentally, just as France and the Netherlands played their first games of the tournament on June 9 that year, the European Values Survey was in the midst of a study in the two countries — a study that included questions about respondents’ confidence in the European Union.

Since the timing of these interviews in each country had nothing to do with the outcome of the Euro 2008 games, the June 2008 survey results provided a perfect opportunity to examine how the soccer championship results might influence public views toward the European Union.

Both teams were in Group C, but fared rather differently. The Netherlands pulled off a stunning 3-0 victory over the reigning world champion, Italy, then won their remaining two matches to qualify at the top of the group. However, in contrast to similar studies in the United States, the buoyant mood over the following week appeared to have no effect at all on Dutch confidence in the European Union, which remained around 34 percent (on a 1-4 scale).

France, which had reached the World Cup final only two years before, faced Romania, arguably the weakest team of the group. Sadly the French could only manage a 0-0 draw; Le Figaro denounced the players as “winded, tedious, dull, soporific.” The team lost 4-1 to the Dutch three days later and finished at the bottom of the group, sparking French media anger but also national despair at what the whole fiasco meant for the country and its future.

And in this case the despondency had a noticeable impact on views toward the European Union, as shown in the graph below. After the Romania game, French confidence in the E.U. decreased by almost seven percentage points among the 225 people surveyed, a statistically significant fall from 36.6 percent in the week before to 29.7 percent over the subsequent seven days.

Gruffyd-Jones, Euro 2016 and Brexit
Confidence in the European Union (on a 1-4 scale) in the week before and after June 9, 2008, when the Netherlands won handsomely but France came away with a disappointing draw in the 2008 European Championship. Data source: European Values Survey 2008, Graph: Jamie Gruffydd-Jones

One explanation for this finding is that people see the European Union as the status quo, the incumbent. While in this study a win-induced positive mood does not seem to make much difference either way, after a loss or disappointing draw members of the public translate their depression into bitterness at their current political leaders and governing institutions — in this case the European Union.

Of course it is hard to know exactly what these trends suggest might happen in the British E.U. referendum vote. The decision is not just about people’s confidence in the European Union but a whole host of other complexities, including the conviction that the country could prosper better on its own. Some voters, for instance, may feel that if England cannot beat Slovakia how could they possibly hope to succeed outside of the E.U.?

But if public confidence in the European Union does translate into votes, then David Cameron, a passionate West Ham United/Aston Villa fan, may have an even greater reason to hope that his country’s teams win through next week.

Jamie Gruffydd-Jones is a doctoral candidate in security studies at Princeton University.