International soccer events may influence political ideology within the United States, according to new research published in Frontiers in Sports and Active Living. The findings provide evidence that the World Cup increased the ratio of Democratic to Republican voters in U.S. states that hosted the tournament.
“What motivated this topic was the observed pattern that in more Democratic states, soccer is a more popular played sport,” said study author Johan Rewilak, an assistant professor of sport management at the University of South Carolina. “Therefore, a simple conclusion has been reached in the fact that soccer is a sport that caters to Democrats.”
“In terms of positioning soccer for it to succeed, this view informs legislators to pledge resources to states that typically vote Democrat. I believed that this is a naïve view and argue that in fact this relationship might even be reversed where soccer may influence voters/states to take on more liberal views and vote democratic. (Therefore, there may be multiple reasons to explain this observed pattern in the data).”
For his study, Rewilak examined the impact of the FIFA World Cup and the introduction of Major League Soccer (MLS) on the Democratic to Republican vote share in U.S. states from 1980 to 2004.
The researcher analyzed data from various sources, including the University of Santa Barbara American Presidency Project, which provided information on the total number of votes each Democratic and Republican candidate received in each state during the presidential elections from 1980 to 2004. The dataset also included information on the economic growth, unemployment, and inflation rates of each state, as well as the percentage of the Hispanic and Caucasian population in each state.
Rewilak found evidence that hosting soccer events like the World Cup could increase a state’s Democratic to Republican vote ratio in subsequent presidential elections.
“The theoretical channels of how soccer may make you change your views is using social cohesion theory,” Rewilak explained. “Social cohesion theory is where a community can build relationships based upon shared values, e.g., playing or following the same soccer team. Collaboration may be sharing the same goals, performing together to win a game, or cheering together in the stands hoping for the same outcome (a win for the home team).”
“The contact hypothesis is the channel how social cohesion instils these new beliefs, builds new relationships, or reduces prejudice, where soccer allows this contact to be made. In its absence, then there would be no ‘event’ where people from different communities may come together and make contact with one another.”
The effect was significant for the 1994 men’s World Cup and the women’s World Cups in 1999 and 2003. “This is a significant finding as the Democratic vote share increased by approximately 18%,” Rewilak told PsyPost.
The United States was required to establish a professional men’s soccer league as a condition of hosting the 1994 World Cup. This led to the creation of Major League Soccer (MLS) in 1996. However, despite the establishment of MLS and the fact that some U.S. states hosted MLS teams from 1996 to 2004, there was no noticeable increase in the Democratic vote share in those states over that period.
“It is not just soccer that led to this increase in Democratic voting,” Rewilak said. “This is because states that hosted MLS franchises from 1996 onwards had no impact on future voting behavior. It was merely a large international soccer tournament that led to these changes in voter preferences and similar results were found when examining the Women’s World Cup that was hosted by the United States in 1999 and 2003.”
The hosting of soccer matches in the United States has had varying impacts on the Democratic vote share, depending on the ethnic makeup and income growth of the state. Rewilak found that the effect of hosting the 1994 World Cup, MLS matches, and women’s World Cup matches on the Democratic vote share decreases as the Hispanic population in a state increases.
Conversely, the impact of hosting the 1994 World Cup and women’s World Cup matches on the Democratic vote share increases as the Caucasian population in a state increases. Additionally, the impact of hosting soccer matches on the Democratic vote share increases as income in states increases.
“The most interesting finding was to do with race and ethnicity,” Rewilak told PsyPost. “This may be put down to the marginal impact of the contact hypothesis. In states that already have a larger Hispanic population, then there would be more contact with different groups in daily life, therefore the need for soccer to initiate this contact is minimal in comparison to states that are very homogenous in their ethnicity.”
The study controlled for various factors that could affect the vote share, including the home state of each Democratic and Republican presidential candidate, the Democratic to Republican House of Representative vote share preceding a presidential election, and the percentage of the Hispanic and Caucasian population in each state.
But Rewilak cautioned that “claims of causality need to be tempered. In the future, attempting to pin down the exact causal relationship would be of significant interest, but we can refute the assumption that soccer should only be positioned in Democratic states (i.e., there is more than just the causal relationship that Democrats drive soccer’s popularity.) For example, there may be some other factor that drives both soccer’s popularity and the appetite to vote Democratic.”
He also said there was no guarantee that World Cup 2026, which will be hosted in Atlanta and Miami (among other cities), would have the same effect. “The United States is very different now than it was in 1994, including far more political polarization,” Rewilak noted.
The study, “Dictating play to the left wing: Does soccer make you more Democratic?” was published March 23, 2023.