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What The MLB Lockout Can Tell Us About Political Fandom And Sports Partisanship

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.


Thursday was supposed to be opening day of the 2022 Major League Baseball season, but it was delayed a week (to next Thursday, April 7) by a contentious labor dispute between players and team owners that lasted much of the winter. The MLB lockout left fans feeling frustrated — especially with team owners — and, they claim, less interested in the sport. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll stop root-root-rooting for the home team. And that holds a lesson even for those who aren’t baseball fans: Be skeptical when a poll says an issue will make people more or less likely to do something (like, say, vote a certain way).

First, some background: At the end of Dec. 1, the collective bargaining agreement that governed MLB players’ relationship with their employers (i.e., the 30 MLB teams) expired. In response, the team owners implemented a lockout (essentially the management version of a strike) preventing the players from going to work1 until the owners and the players union reached a new agreement. For the next few months, the two sides slowly negotiated everything from specific rule changes to the biggest bone of contention, player salaries. Eventually, on March 10, they agreed to a new deal, but not before the first several games of the season were called off. (They have now been rescheduled for later in the year.)

According to two polls conducted just before the lockout ended, fans generally sided with the players in the dispute. Forty-five percent of self-identified MLB fans told Morning Consult that the owners were most responsible for the two sides’ failure to agree, while only 21 percent said the players were most responsible. Similarly, a SurveyMonkey/Los Angeles Times poll found that 31 percent of MLB fans blamed the owners most for the lockout, while only 12 percent blamed the players most (however, 49 percent said they blamed both sides equally). According to SurveyMonkey/the Los Angeles Times, fans agreed, 65 percent to 26 percent, that the players were negotiating in good faith, but fans narrowly disagreed that the owners were doing so, 49 percent to 42 percent.

Interestingly, in past labor disputes, fans generally sided with MLB owners. For example, during the notorious 1994-95 strike (which canceled the 1994 World Series), an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 45 percent of fans held the players more responsible and only 27 percent held the owners more responsible (while 24 percent volunteered that both sides were equally responsible). Why the reversal?

For one thing, in a very literal sense, the owners were responsible for the recent lockout: They didn’t have to implement it (legally, the business of MLB could have continued under the old collective bargaining agreement while a new one was being negotiated), but they chose to do so to gain leverage over the players. In addition, owners reportedly pulled a fast one on the players at times during negotiations, such as inserting new provisions into a proposal at the last minute and refusing to make a counterproposal after saying they would. Media coverage of the lockout was also more sympathetic to the players, both explicitly and implicitly by highlighting how much wealthier the owners are than the players and how the players’ share of MLB’s revenue has dropped in recent years.

Regardless of whom they blamed, though, fans weren’t happy during the lockout. Forty-six percent told Morning Consult they were “frustrated,” and 75 percent told SurveyMonkey/the Los Angeles Times that they agreed that the main issue in the lockout was “greed, not baseball.” And 60 percent of fans in the SurveyMonkey/Los Angeles Times poll said that the dispute had caused them to lose interest in the 2022 baseball season.

You might expect that last number to set off alarm bells in MLB headquarters (and maybe it did — these polls, or at least the sentiments expressed in them, could help explain why a new agreement was signed just a few days later). But later on in the same poll, a plurality of fans also said the lockout probably wouldn’t affect how much time or money they spent on baseball this year. Fifty percent of fans said they would attend about the same number of games that they would have if there hadn’t been a lockout, 49 percent said they would watch about the same number of games, and 47 percent said they would buy about the same amount of merchandise.

Granted, a healthy minority of fans — 32 to 36 percent — said they would do these things less because of the lockout, but since the poll was taken while the lockout was still going on, some fans may have assumed that the lockout would cancel a good chunk of the season, if not all of it. (In a separate question, only 59 percent of respondents predicted that the lockout would be resolved by Memorial Day.)

And even those who assumed baseball would be back quickly may have been using this question to express their displeasure with the dispute. We’ll have to wait until the end of the season to check attendance, viewership and revenue numbers to know for sure, but the smart bet is probably that the lockout won’t significantly harm MLB’s bottom line.2 You see, polling questions like this are a honeytrap for political analysts, too. Pollsters routinely ask people whether certain policy stances, political decisions or scandals will make them more or less likely to vote for a politician, but these questions should rarely be taken literally.

That’s because respondents themselves rarely take the question literally, instead using it as an opportunity to register their feelings about the stance, decision, scandal or politician in question. For example, according to a SurveyMonkey/NBC News poll from back in 2016, 39 percent of likely voters said that the “Access Hollywood” tape would make them less likely to support Donald Trump for president. But that included 65 percent of Democrats — few of whom ever had any likelihood of supporting Trump anyway. Among Republicans — i.e., a group that was inclined to support Trump before the tape’s release — only 12 percent said the tape made them less likely to support him, while 81 percent said it made no difference. 

An Ipsos/FiveThirtyEight poll from 2019 illustrates how this can apply to nonelectoral questions, too. In it, 38 percent of Americans said that Trump’s impeachment hearings had made them more likely to believe he committed an impeachable offense; only 20 percent said it made them less likely to believe it. But 95 percent of those who said the hearings made them more likely to believe Trump committed an impeachable offense already believed that he had. And an identical 95 percent of those who said the hearings made them less likely to believe it already believed that he was innocent.

These types of questions are really relevant only among the subset of respondents whose minds are genuinely not made up — and even then, you’re putting a lot of trust in them to accurately predict their future behavior. (For instance, Trump did dip in the polls after the “Access Hollywood” tape was released — but he recovered a few weeks later, suggesting that voters put aside their misgivings with the tape because they found another reason to vote for Trump.)

And sure, maybe MLB fans’ game-watching habits are more malleable than partisans’ political beliefs, but sports fandom can inspire people to do extreme things and twist themselves up in logical knots, just like partisanship. There’s a reason that sports fandom and political fanaticism are often compared

Other polling bites

  • Will Smith’s net favorability rating among Americans has fallen by 30 percentage points after he slapped Chris Rock at the 94th Academy Awards last weekend, according to a March 27 poll from CivicScience. (If you’ve been living under a rock: Smith attacked Rock after Rock made a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who has alopecia.) CivicScience, which has been tracking Smith’s favorability ratings weekly since 2011, found Smith’s net favorability — the share who have a favorable view of Smith minus the share who have an unfavorable view — dropping from +50 points to +20 points post-slap. Seventy-eight percent of Americans sided with Rock, according to this poll, while 61 percent said in a March 28 YouGov poll that what Smith did was wrong.
  • The share of Americans supporting Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation to the Supreme Court seems relatively unchanged by her confirmation hearings, though some Americans may have gone from being undecided to opposing her confirmation. A March 25-27 poll from Morning Consult/Politico found that 47 percent of registered voters thought that the Senate should vote to confirm Jackson, while a March 26-29 poll from The Economist/YouGov showed 43 percent support among Americans. Those numbers are similar to Jackson’s support in our analysis of polls conducted prior to the hearings. When compared with their previous polls, the share of respondents who had “no opinion” or were “not sure” dropped by 7 percentage points in both polls. The Morning Consult/Politico poll also found that opposition to Jackson’s confirmation rose by 7 points, but The Economist/YouGov survey found basically no change in opposition.
  • Views of American leadership have dramatically improved across almost all NATO countries, according to a Gallup poll conducted in February but before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Compared to 2020, 26 of the 27 countries polled had a more favorable view of U.S. leadership. The greatest increases came from Portugal (52 percentage points), the Netherlands (45 points) and Norway (42 points). The only country with lower approval of U.S. leadership was Lithuania, where favorability decreased by 6 points.
  • A strong majority of Americans (77 percent) supported the CDC’s decision to relax social distancing and face mask guidelines in areas with low rates of COVID-19, according to a March 10-14 poll from Monmouth University. Additionally, 62 percent thought that face mask and social distancing guidelines should not be instituted in their state currently, while 55 percent opposed requirements to show proof of vaccination to do in-person work. But a majority of Americans seemed fine with changing these guidelines as the situation changes — 50 percent said they preferred for the government to continue adjusting guidelines and mandates, while 34 percent said they wanted no guidelines and 14 percent said they wanted the government to settle on something consistent.
  • Americans are growing increasingly concerned about Russia’s nuclear weapons and global influence, according to a March 17-21 poll from the Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Seventy-one percent of Americans said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had increased the likelihood of nuclear weapons being used anywhere in the world, with the majority saying that this made them extremely or very concerned about Ukraine (61 percent) or other European countries (50 percent) being potential targets. Compared with a February poll taken just prior to the invasion, the share of Americans in the more recent poll who were extremely or very concerned that Russia’s influence around the world posed a direct threat to the United States rose 11 percentage points, to 64 percent.

Biden approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,3 41.2 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 53.1 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11.9 points). At this time last week, 41.6 percent approved and 53.0 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -11.4 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 40.9 percent and a disapproval rating of 53.3 percent, for a net approval rating of -12.3 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot,4 Republicans currently lead by 2.1 percentage points (44.7 percent to 42.6 percent). A week ago, Republicans led Democrats by 2.0 points (44.5 percent to 42.5 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Republicans by 2.3 points (45.0 percent to 42.6 percent).

Footnotes

  1. The baseball season was over by this point, so the lockout didn’t immediately cancel any games, but players still couldn’t sign new contracts with teams, work out at team facilities or even talk to their former employers.

  2. There’s a popular perception that the 1994-95 strike damaged baseball’s standing, but if it did, the effect was temporary. Long-term trends in game attendance and the percentage of Americans calling themselves baseball fans have been steady. Regardless, of course, there’s a big difference between a strike that canceled 948 games and a lockout that ultimately canceled none.

  3. As of 5 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

  4. As of 5 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Jean Yi is a politics intern at FiveThirtyEight.

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