x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Weighing the election in gridiron terms

Candidates make a final appeal to voters during 'Monday Night Football' but fans seem ready for the whistle to blow on the campaign trail.

Kevin Nordberg, left, discusses the presidential campaign while watching an American football game at Joe Theismann's Restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia.
Kevin Nordberg, left, discusses the presidential campaign while watching an American football game at Joe Theismann's Restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia.

ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA // Even before Lyndon Johnson, the Vietnam-era president, referred to Gerald Ford as "a nice guy who played too much football with his helmet off", American football and presidential politics have been inextricably linked. At the University of Michigan, Ford, who became president in 1974 upon the resignation of Richard Nixon, was the most valuable player on a national championship football team; six years later, Ronald Reagan played George "the Gipper" Gipp in a 1940 film about Knute Rockne, a legendary University of Notre Dame football coach.

The tradition has continued this year. Barack Obama and John McCain, the senators now trying to better their resumes, used the half-time show of Monday Night Football, the most watched programme on US cable television, to deliver their final appeals to voters before election day. But for many watching the New York Giants play the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday at Joe Theismann's Restaurant, in Alexandria, across the Potomac River from Washington in the critical election battleground state of Virginia, it was time to let the clock run out on the campaign. "The election process goes on far too long. It's too much of the same sound bites and too many commercials," said Kevin Nordberg, who was wearing a New England Patriots hat and jersey.

Mr Nordberg's choice for president, Mr McCain, has expressed his frustration with commercials as well. During the second presidential debate, he complained that while he was watching an Arizona Cardinals football game, "every other ad was an attack on my healthcare plan". The remark reflected frustration within the McCain camp at Mr Obama's huge fund-raising advantage, allowing his campaign to blanket the airwaves with advertisements during football broadcasts and to purchase an entire half-hour of prime-time television, delaying the start of the final World Series game, the week before the election.

Although some polls showed the race tightening in the final days of the campaign, Mr McCain's everyman mantras and criticism against Mr Obama's tax policy was seen as a fumble among the crowd gathered to watch football at Theismann's, named after the former Redskins quarterback. "How can someone understand me when he can't understand how many houses he owns?" asked Mike Collins, in reference to an interview in which Mr McCain referred a reporter's question about how many homes he owned to a campaign staffer because he did not know the answer himself.

"I think I could sit down and have a beer with Barack," said Val Klotz, while behind her another Obama campaign advertisement played on the television. A poll by the Associated Press in September found that 50 per cent of respondents would rather watch a football game with Mr Obama while 47 per cent stated they would rather watch with Mr McCain. Speaking at a rally in Springfield, Virginia, on Sunday on behalf of Mr McCain, George Allen, a former US senator and Virginia governor, used a football metaphor to link Mr Obama with a redistributionist, or socialist, economic agenda. "Under Barack Obama's policies, they'd take some of the Redskins' wins and give them to the Detroit Lions," Mr Allen told the crowd. The Detroit Lions are winless this year, and the Washington Redskins have won six of their eight games.

Mr Allen, a former college quarterback and the son of a Hall of Fame football coach for the Redskins, made a career of such quips. He lost his Senate seat in 2006 largely over his support for George W Bush's Iraq policy and a comment that many regarded as racist. Democrats in Colorado also caught some of that home team spirit in the final days of the campaign. At Invesco Field in heavily contested Colorado, where Mr Obama had accepted his party's nomination in August, a banner that read "McCain is a Raiders fan" flew over the stadium as the Denver Broncos played on Sunday. The Oakland Raiders are the Broncos' arch-rivals.

The candidates had their final opportunity to address a national audience - particularly voters in swing states - during halftime of last night's football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins, played in Prince George's County, Maryland, just outside the nation's capital. The Redskins have a large fan base in Virginia, whose 13 electoral votes are closely contested and the Steelers play in Pennsylvania, whose 21 electoral votes have become the latest centrepiece of Mr McCain's election strategy. Maryland's 10 electoral votes are solidly Democratic as are the District of Columbia's three.

If history serves as a guide, the candidates might also have an investment in the game's outcome. According to Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau, in the 17 election years that the Redskins have played in Washington, if they win their final game before election day, then the party that won the popular vote in the previous election will remain in the White House. In other words, a Redskins win means a McCain administration.

pgranfield@thenational.ae