DES MOINES, Iowa — Halloween and college football are scheduled to coincide this fall, three days before national elections, with the COVID-19 pandemic an unwelcome backdrop to all of it.
In the South on Oct. 31, Georgia and Florida are supposed to renew their annual rivalry in Jacksonville, a boisterous tradition dubbed “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” The Baylor Bears are intended to travel to Austin to tangle with the Texas Longhorns in a contest that would have the full attention of that football-loving state. And in the Midwest, Nebraska and Ohio State are on tap to trod into the Horseshoe, where two proud fan bases would normally converge to create a red October.
There is nothing normal about this college football season. There’s a strong chance the stadiums will be empty, an open question of whether the games will be played at all.
And that could underscore the seriousness of the grip the coronavirus has on America as voters head to the polls Nov. 3.
“No one gives a hoot in hell if organic chemistry classes are canceled,” veteran Washington Post political columnist George Will told USA TODAY Sports. “But cancel the Alabama-Mississippi game and you’re playing with fire.”
President Donald Trump is up for re-election. So are 11 governors, including those in West Virginia, North Carolina, Utah, Washington, Indiana and Missouri, all home to FBS football programs. There is no research on whether the absence of America’s favorite sport would cause some voters to turn on incumbent officeholders. Then again, there’s never needed to be.
“I think it’s a fascinating question,” said Justin Holmes, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa.
“For a lot of incumbents, there is the goal to get back to normal in some way. We’ve had a lot of deviations from normal as of late. We have an awful lot of people get wrapped up in college sports. The audience for that is huge. They tailgate around it. They have parties around it. I don’t think it’s different in kind from other deprivations that we’ve had. But people who spend their Saturdays in front of the TV, what are they going to do with themselves? That could hit home. Whether they take it out on people politically, I’m not sure what that looks like.”
Trump has been pushing for schools to resume face-to-face learning in the fall. His vice president, Mike Pence, even brought that message to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, this month, sitting at a table with Ed Orgeron, the head coach of reigning college football champion LSU and applauding as Orgeron proclaimed: “Football is the lifeblood of our country. It gets everything going, the economy going – the economy of Baton Rouge and the economy of the state of Louisiana.”
The optics of that meeting were not lost on political observers such as David Wasserman, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report and an NBC News contributor.
“It’s not just college football. It’s school,” Wasserman said of what Americans may be missing as they prepare to cast their ballots Nov. 3. “I think it has an indirect effect on the presidential election since the voters believe the country is on the wrong track, much more than they did three or four months ago. And that is a terrible climate for an incumbent president to be running for re-election.
“If (Trump) can portray Democrats as the party of keeping schools closed, portray Republicans as the party of keeping schools open, that becomes a more complicated public policy issue.”
Wasserman doesn’t believe the absence of college football would have any bearing on gubernatorial races, since polls show strong support for incumbents in those positions. Nor does he sense a broad anti-incumbent sentiment in America generally as politicians grapple with how to keep constituents safe from the coronavirus without derailing the economy.
“Sports may be the one unifying thing we have left in the country that unites urban and rural areas of states as they’ve become more politically polarized,” Wasserman said.
“(Trump’s sliding approval ratings) means voters are in a bad mood, and they are upset with the direction of the country.”
John Weaver is a college football fan, particularly of his alma mater Texas A&M, and a political consultant best known for his work on the presidential campaigns of Republicans John McCain and John Kasich. He’s spending this election cycle as an adviser to the Lincoln Project, dedicated to defeating Trump and what he sees as members of the Republican Party who have “enabled” him.
Weaver said he believes empty college football stadiums from Texas to Michigan would cast a powerful symbolic message in early November, just when the college season typically reaches its crescendo.
“It will show the instability and chaos in the country and the cost to the country of the lack of a plan, the lack of effort to see this thing through,” Weaver said.
“We’ll have empty stadiums that normally hold 50,000 to 100,000 people on a glorious Saturday afternoon that also helps fund every other sports program at a university. That is going to resonate with a pretty broad group of fans across the country. There will be a political price to pay, too. It’s a further eroding of things in our society that people in their mind’s eye hold dear.”
Weaver said he believes an autumn without college football could spur enough anger to be decisive in a close electoral race.
Holmes, the professor, pointed out that there has been research done on whether rain on election day puts voters in a bad enough mood that it alters their decision at the ballot box. Something that seems so trivial can have a marginal impact.
“We do know that there are voters – and I don’t understand these people, but they exist – who really make their mind up for the presidential vote on election day. Somebody like that I think is more apt to be influenced by (the lack of football) or just any little thing,” Holmes said.
“In a close race, anything that would remind us of how things used to be and they’re now not would feed into that general sense of dissatisfaction that people have. For Trump, that’s a lot of his problem.”
Will isn’t convinced that football, or the absence of it, will be a significant factor in the results of Nov. 3.
Not even in the Deep South?
“If the pandemic can shut down the SEC,” Will allowed, “then it is of world historic importance.”
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