Do shark attacks really influence presidential elections?

Maybe voters aren’t quite as irrational as we had thought, or at least not in some of the ways we had thought:

We reassess Achen and Bartels’ (2002, 2016) prominent claim that shark attacks influence presidential elections, and we find that the evidence is, at best, inconclusive. First, we assemble data on every fatal shark attack in U.S. history and county-level returns from every presidential election between 1872 and 2012, and we find little systematic evidence that shark attacks hurt incumbent presidents or their party. Second, we show that Achen and Bartels’ finding of fatal shark attacks hurting Woodrow Wilson’s vote share in the beach counties of New Jersey in 1916 becomes substantively smaller and statistically weaker under alternative specifications. Third, we find that their town-level result for beach townships in Ocean County significantly shrinks when we correct errors associated with changes in town borders and does not hold for the other beach counties in New Jersey. Lastly, implementing placebo tests in state-elections where there were no shark attacks, we demonstrate that Achen and Bartels’ result was likely to arise even if shark attacks do not influence elections. Overall, there is little compelling evidence that shark attacks influence presidential elections, and any such effect—if one exists—appears to be substantively negligible.

That is from a new paper by Anthony Fowler and Andrew B. Hall (pdf).  Here is commentary from Andrew Gelman.  Here is related work by Fowler and Montagnes on football games, here is a response.

Just don’t conclude that voters are so extremely rational, in my view focal, vote-moving irrationalities typically will be tied conflicts in social status across different groups.


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