Voters are more likely to reelect incumbents when political outcomes are positive. Although most scholars assume this is because voters explicitly credit politicians for good outcomes, this article investigates whether some voters simply opt for the status quo when they feel happy.
To distinguish these two voting models, I propose professional sports records as a proxy for electorate happiness unrelated to political performance. I test the impact of sports performance on incumbent mayoral elections in 39 American cities from 1948 to 2009.
Winning sports records boost incumbents’ vote totals and likelihoods of reelection, exceeding in magnitude the effect of variation in unemployment. In contrast, sports records following elections display no such relationship.
Retrospective voting is partly driven by feelings of happiness unrelated to political appraisal. However, I argue that the implications for democratic accountability are not as dire as many authors claim.