Play Ball: What Your Sports Say About Your Politics

Mike Shannon    Baseball Thumb

Every four years, the seasons of big-time sports and major league politics overlap, beginning with the Summer Olympics and ending with a U.S. presidential election. As we show, the allegiances of American sports fans say a lot about their political leanings and likelihood of voting.

With the World Series underway and the presidential election just days away, fans of sports and politics are approaching the conclusion of an epic 100 days. In addition to the Olympics, we've had the Ryder Cup, the U.S. Open, the return of the NFL and college football, and the Major League Baseball playoffs. In politics, there has been a Vice Presidential selection contest, two national conventions, four televised debates, and the daily back-and-forth horse race of a hard-fought presidential contest.

On rare occasion, the sports and political interests of Americans compete with each other, as they did on the night of the final debate, when 18.8 million citizens chose the Lions-Bears or Giants-Cards over Romney-Obama.

But more often, sports, politics, and presidencies intersect.

Richard Nixon was obsessive about the Washington Redskins, spoke in football metaphors, and often used the White House switchboard to call in plays to coach George H. Allen. George F. Allen, the son, went on to be elected as a Republican Governor and U. S. Senator from Virginia, and is running this year to recapture his old Senate seat.

George W. Bush, who once was the managing partner of the Texas Rangers, followed the box scores closely during his presidency, brought tee ball to the White House grounds and rallied the nation with his first pitch at Yankees Stadium in the aftermath of 9/11. 

Mitt Romney ran the 2002 Winter Olympics, but President Obama might be the biggest sports fan to ever occupy the White House. "When the TV is on and the president is in the room, it's usually ESPN," White House press secretary Jay Carney said in August.  Obama also is the first president who shares his March Madness brackets on national TV, hosts regular White House hoops games, and has been seen in stands at many basketball events.

Sports have even become part of political analysis.  Pollsters have identified Soccer Moms andNASCAR Dads as key voting blocs. Nate Silver, the New York Times chief election prognosticator, began his career as a leading baseball statistician and has brought sabermetric modeling into electoral predictions.  Political analyst George Will is a baseball fanatic, wrote a book about it, and calls baseball “the right sport for a democracy.”

Sports are also playing a role in this year’s presidential campaign.

The candidates weighed in on the NFL referee lockout, Romney appeared at the London Olympics and a NASCAR race, and Obama has been interviewed several times by ESPN. Both candidates arereportedly seeking to join the Monday Night Football broadcast on the eve of the election.

Even a fictional sports drama has created presidential campaign drama – Mitt Romney has adopted the Friday Night Lights slogan “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” and was endorsed by the book’s author Buzz Bissinger, a longtime Democrat. This caused Hollywood director-producer Peter Berg -- of the TV series and movie based on the book – to strike back with a letter attacking Governor Romney.

Sports Fans are More Likely to Vote

Perhaps political candidates have always intuitively known what we learned in our research:  that sports fans are more likely to vote than non-fans. This is clear in the chart “Politics of Sports Fans” (above) which shows fan bubbles for most sports floating toward the top of the space in high turnout territory.

The chart, based on an analysis of over 200,000 interviews conducted by Scarborough Research, also shows that high-turnout Republicans favor the PGA Tour, NASCAR, and college football. The NFL, Olympics, college basketball, and Major League Baseball fall in the middle, with just a slight tilt to the right. On the other hand, Democrats are more likely to gravitate to the NBA, tennis and soccer.

President Obama and his campaign team (who are avid consumers of Scarborough data) know that golfers and college basketball fans are high turnout Republicans while professional basketball fans are more likely to be Democrats.  Obama’s well publicized schedule of golf, March Madness brackets, and pick-up hoops amounts to “sports triangulation” – an appeal to both Republicans and Democrats in an effort to reach the middle. (To hold his golfing base, Romney countered with an endorsement from Jack Nicklaus – if elected, he would be the first non-golfing president in decades.)

Defecting Republican golfers and college sports fans were a key part of Obama’s winning coalition in 2008. Will we see him, like Bob Hope, holding his favorite golf club on stage at campaign rallies in the closing days? Unlikely. But with the presidential contest tied going into in the 18th hole, it might not be a bad idea.


(Co-authored by Will Feltus, the Senior Vice President for media research and planning at National Media in Alexandria, Virginia.)