Washington Redskins fans tell a story about their football team’s uncanny ability to determine the outcome of presidential elections. If the Skins win the game nearest polling day, the incumbent’s party is headed back to the White House. If the Skins lose? The football gods have spoken: Time for a turnover.
It hasn’t always panned out that way. The invaluable myth debunking website Snopes explains, “Reality finally trumped coincidence in 2004” when the Green Bay Packers beat the Skins and George W. Bush went on to win reelection. But really, Snopes added, “Though the Redskins indicator is no longer perfect, with 18 correct matches out of the last 19 elections, it can still boast an impressive accuracy rate of 94.7%.”
Make that 95 percent. The coincidence/curse was a big enough deal that ESPN scheduled interviews with both John McCain and Barack Obama during halftime of last Monday night’s game between the Skins and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Chris Berman asked them both: If they could change one thing about sports, what would that be?
Obama nailed the answer: “It is about time that we had playoffs in college football.” McCain? Not so much. The old regulator said that he would “take significant action to prevent the spread and use of performance enhancing substances.”
My friend, co-blogger, and season ticket holder Sean Higgins invited me that night so I witnessed firsthand as the Steelers walked all over the Skins in their own house. Skins quarterback Jason Campbell was sacked seven times, and several of those sacks were brutal.
When we entered the stadium I wondered why stadium employees were patting everyone down. Not long into the game, my civil liberties concerns seemed naïve at best. Thuggish Steelers fans taunted Washington fans, chanting “Let’s go Steelers!” even in the crowded restrooms, threw bottles at people, and started a lot of fights. Washington Post columnist Mike Wise summed it up best: “Steel-City Ruffians 23. Washington’s Wannabe Tough Guys 6.”
Without buying into the voodoo power of Skins games to determine presidential elections, let me admit something slightly embarrassing here. As I was watching the game, I began to see in the failure of the Skins the failures of the McCain campaign. And the similarities only seemed to multiply as the game dragged on.
In the game: The opening kick went badly for the Steelers, putting the Skins close to a touchdown. Rather than try to make up one yard for a first down, Skins coach Jim Zorn chose to go for an easy field goal, a call he would repeat later in the game.
This cautious approach could keep the lid on the Steelers’ scoring for only so long, and a series of good runs and turnovers allowed the Steelers to run up a commanding lead. Finally, late in the game, the Skins become more aggressive and scored their first touchdown, only to have it called back on instant replay.
In the election: The McCain campaign failed to capitalize on the Democratic primary infighting, and fretted about attacking Obama too vigorously. That allowed the Democrat to make gains. McCain looked like he had come back to parity after the Republican convention but those gains evaporated quickly when the stock market headed south. In the end it wasn’t even close.
One other irksome similarity was difficult to dismiss. Skins fans desperately grasped at every little bit of good news to try to squeeze some hope out of it. Higgins said, “You know, we’re a little too excited about a first down.” There’s a lesson in that for my fellow partisans.