Correlation and not causation: Redskins games predict results of presidential election

Big events like presidential elections tend to bring out some crazy data patterns. Here is my nomination for the oddest one of this election season: how the Washington Redskins do in their final game before the election predicts the presidential election.

Since 1940 — when the Redskins moved to D.C. — the team’s outcome in its final game before the presidential election has predicted which party would win the White House each time but once.

When the Redskins win their game before the election, the incumbent party wins the presidential vote. If the Redskins lose, the non-incumbent wins.

The only exception was in 2004, when Washington fell to Green Bay, but George W. Bush still went on to win the election over John Kerry.

This is simply a quirk of data: how the Redskins do should have little to no effect on voting in other states. This is exactly what correlation without causation is about; there may be a clear pattern ut it doesn’t necessarily mean the two related facts cause each other. There may be some spurious association here, some variable that predicts both outcomes, but even that is hard to imagine. Yet, the Redskins Rule has garnered a lot of attention in recent days. Why? A few possible reasons:

1. It connects two American obsessions: presidential elections and the NFL. A sidelight: both may involve a lot of betting.

2. So much reporting has been done on the 2012 elections that this adds a more whimsical and mysterious element.

3. Humans like to find patterns, even if these patterns don’t make much sense.

What’s next, an American octopus who can predict presidential elections?

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