President Obama gave ESPN the basketball thinking behind his March Madness bracket picks this year, but as the NCAA tournament cranks up in earnest today, a more political analysis shows that he didn’t forget it’s an election year: Of Obama’s 32 selections to win at least one game, 19 teams come from battleground states, and he picked 11 of those to make the Sweet 16.
States getting particularly favorable treatment from the world’s most powerful college basketball fan include Ohio and North Carolina -– he advanced three teams from each to the round of 32 -– followed by Michigan, Virginia, Wisconsin and Indiana with two teams apiece. All right, it’s arguable whether Republican-leaning Indiana is a swing state in this presidential election, but Obama carried it in 2008 and it is next door to his home state of Illinois.
And Obama picked at one team from each of these states to win at least a game: Pennsylvania, Florida, Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico.
We hold no evidence that Obama let his reelection campaign guide his choices, and to be fair, a case can always be made for ANY pick in the NCAA field, which is legendary for its unpredictability. Obama’s Final Four picks stick to the favorites, with two No. 1 seeds (Kentucky and North Carolina) advancing along with a pair of No. 2 seeds, Ohio State and Missouri. That’s not surprising, because it is atypical for all four top seeds to reach the Final Four.
But for the sake of a little fun, we analyzed Obama’s picks through the lens of swing-state bracketology.
Let’s start with a smattering of games from the field of 64, where right away Obama faced some difficult choices. In these matchups, both teams come from battleground states Obama won in 2008 (tournament seeds included in parentheses):
(10) Virginia over (7) Florida – Two big states for Obama. His win in Virginia four years ago marked the first time since 1964 that a Democratic presidential nominee carried the state, and he faces a fight to repeat this fall. Florida? Could go down to the wire. Faced with this uncertainty, perhaps he opted for the school from Charlottesville, just a few hours west of the White House. That, and the Cavaliers are known for great defense, a big plus in the tournament.
(2) Duke over (15) Lehigh – Lehigh is from Pennsylvania, Duke is from North Carolina. What to do? Well, the Mountain Hawks are 0-4 all-time in the tournament. Duke is merely basketball royalty. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has taken the Blue Devils to 11 Final Fours and four national championships. That will swing a vote.
(10) Xavier over (7) Notre Dame – A little love for the lower-seeded team from ... hey, look at that, Cincinnati, a noted Republican stronghold where perhaps Obama needs to step up his recruiting. So go with the upset.
(4) Michigan over (13) Ohio – Michigan won a share of the Big Ten regular-season title, while Ohio has been a pre-tournament darling of the upset prognosticators. But for Obama, there’s a key fact: The Wolverines are from Mitt Romney’s native state, and it still looks like the Republicans eventually will make Romney their nominee, even if they don’t always demonstrate their elation at the polls. Maybe that’s what Obama meant when he said, “Michigan looks good.”
(6) UNLV over (11) Colorado – The president went with higher-seeded UNLV over Colorado, which likely only made the field because it won the Pac-12 tournament. UNLV is perhaps the biggest sports draw in Las Vegas -- not counting the bookmakers. Politically, it’s a tough call. Both states are in play, though Nevada is considered more likely to go his way this time around. Perhaps Obama is hedging his bet.
(4) Indiana over (13) New Mexico State – New Mexico State is another trendy upset pick. Obama’s not buying it, and although he may end up needing New Mexico’s four electoral votes, Indiana’s got 13. The Hoosiers are also one of only two teams to beat Kentucky this year, which was not unnoticed by the president, who called them “tough.”
(5) Temple over (12) South Florida – Poor South Florida. The Bulls had to win one of the “first four” games (defeating Cal on Wednesday night) to get here, and Obama already had picked Temple to win no matter who made it. Even if he had known it was South Florida, it probably wouldn’t have made any difference. Not only is Philadelphia like a temple of Obama supporters, the Owls carry a reputation as a tough-to-play, well-coached outfit under Coach Fran Dunphy, who moved across town from Penn six years ago when Hall of Famer John Chaney retired. Philly is a serious college basketball town -- home of the Big 5 of Temple, Penn, Villanova, Saint Joseph’s and LaSalle -- and Obama is a serious fan. You can be sure he knows all about Dunphy, who put up 10 Ivy League titles in 17 years at Penn.
Swing-state team vs. non-swing-state team – And then there’s this: Of 32 matchups in the round of 64, there are 17 in which a swing-state team faces a non-swing-state opponent. Obama picked the swing-state teams to go 12-5, though, to be fair, those often were the favorites. Maybe it just worked out that way. But he did pick a few swing-staters to pull upsets – going with No. 12 Virginia Commonwealth over No. 5 Wichita State, as well as No. 10 Purdue, from West Lafayette, Ind., over No. 7 St. Mary’s, out of California.
If there was any battleground-state generosity driving some of the president’s picks, it only lasted a game. When it came time to pick his Sweet 16, Obama got real, pretty much sticking with the teams the experts seeded to advance.
He still ended up picking 11 swing-state teams to make it to the second weekend: North Carolina, Michigan State, Ohio State, Duke, Florida State, Marquette, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, North Carolina State and New Mexico. Only No. 5 New Mexico over No. 4 Louisville, which won the Big East Tournament, would be considered a minor upset.
Though Obama is a major basketball fan, he said he won’t have time to see much of the tournament. On Tuesday, he noted that the opening round game he attended with British Prime Minister David Cameron would be the only NCAA game he’d see live.
It was in Ohio, home of four tournament teams -– and 26 electoral votes.