By Al Giordano
Check out the NFL fan map, above, a county-by-county guide to which NFL football teams have the most fans in each county of the USA.
Now look at the map of Iowa.
Bear with me if you’re not an NFL football fan and approach this, then, as an anthropologist might. Everybody surely knows that it is a game that stirs great passions among a good part of the US population.
Half of the state of Iowa, to the south, is colored red, populated mainly by fans of next-door Missouri’s Kansas City Chiefs. That includes the biggest cluster of votes in and around the state capital of Des Moines. The Chiefs – champions of the American Football Conference, or AFC -are playing in the Super Bowl on Sunday.
The northern half roots for the Minnesota Vikings, who the other Super Bowl team, the San Francisco 49ers, champs of the National Football Conference, or NFC, trounced in the divisional playoff game in December. Most Viking fans will therefore also be rooting for the Chiefs tomorrow, albeit with somewhat less passion than the Chiefs fans in the other half of the state.
There are, on the map, some green-colored pockets of a few counties that root for the neighboring Green Bay Packers in Wisconsin (the other team that lost in the playoffs to the 49ers, so no love lost there either for the NFC champions from California) and also, along the Illinois border, some Chicago Bear fan enclaves. But overall, Iowa is slightly more than half Chiefs country and the rest mostly Vikings fans. None of these groups – of course, there are always some exceptions, but mostly – have any love for the 49ers this week.
Last year, 149 million of the United States’ 327 million citizens (about 45 percent of the population) watched the Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams. Two-thirds of homes with TVs had at least someone in the family watching it. Additionally, more than 7 million watched the 2019 Super Bowl on streaming devices. The audience share is naturally higher each year in the regions where the fans – or rivals – of the two teams live and work.
In other words, if you’re volunteering in Iowa, door knocking or phone calling during the game will bare scarce fruit. Relax and watch the game and, if the Chiefs win, spend Monday congratulating every voter you see on it.
Some may be surprised to learn that almost half – 47 percent – of American Super Bowl viewers are women. About a third of the audience is young adults, 18-35. The game attracts millions of viewers who do not watch NFL football during the regular season. It has the luster of a live event, that will be talked about the next day in workplaces and schools.
The ads themselves become a conversation piece (Donald Trump’s campaign is running a 30 second spot during the Super Bowl, paying more than $5 million dollars. Mike Bloomberg is spending more than $11 million to run a 60-second ad in the sweet spot between the halftime show – starring Shakira, Jennifer Lopez and Los Tigres del Norte – and the second half of the game). Bloomberg’s ad, by the way, is very powerful, focusing on how gun violence took the life of an African-American child football star, narrated by his mother.
Sports generate emotions. Large-scale spectacle sporting events generate a sense of shared adrenaline, steeped in passion, with friends, family and strangers alike.
Iowa has skin on the Chiefs, especially among those dyed-in-the-wool Chiefs Nation fans. If the Chiefs win, those Iowans will be feeling good (which is to say, not angry) and if the Niners win Iowan NFL fans will be feeling angry and also lethargic and lost. As often happens, many may blame the loss on the referees, on a penalty call they considered bad or unfair. That happens a lot in championship games. Nobody wants to admit they lost because they didn’t play as well or effectively. Does that remind you of any team in the Democratic primaries?
A Chiefs loss, conversely, especially if the losing side grows focused against how the referees called the game, plays into the darkest fantasies of an angry white male voter. In the Democratic primaries, that kind of voter is largely with Bernie Sanders, and it could resonate with the messaging out of Vermont this week that the Democratic National Committee wants to “rig” the primaries against Sanders. (Campaign spokesman Jeff Weaver used the word “rigged” after the DNC amended the debate qualification rules in a way that would now permit Michael Bloomberg on the next debate stage based on his rising and qualifying support in most polls. They apparently calculate that claiming the game is rigged helps turn out their angriest voters.)
Maybe that fired-up anger, if Chief fans end up blaming a loss on the refs. will cause higher turnout for Sanders, or attract undecided Democrats that also have a predisposition that “everything is rigged” into his camp. On the other hand, the Monday hangover among many on the losing side may prove a mitigating factor causing part of that cohort, exhausted from the emotion of the loss, to rest early instead of head to the caucuses.
But if the Chiefs win, much of Iowa’s electorate is going to be happy with the status quo of the world, if only for a day. And that’s good for Democratic candidates out there with a positive message, which is most of them.
Now that last night’s spectacle of US Rep. Rashida Tlaib urging the assembled to boo Hillary Clinton has become the top political news story in Iowa today, and good faith Democrats are horrified by the Trumpian nature and mean-spiritedness of it all, there may also come a caucus backlash against Sanders at the eleventh hour. We’ve all seen this movie before. Team Sanders believes it is about to win something and have a “bend the knee” moment in victory in which it seems to more hope for humiliation of its primary rivals – and strangely, their supporters most of all – than for the good feelings of a hard-earned win. And when Democrats see that side of them, any goodwill that might have seeped in since 2016 tends to fly out the door when they remember the toxic negativity of the last presidential election. So often it happens that each time the Sanders camp thinks it is about to win some surrogates overplay their hand and the candidate’s standings go tumbling down the stairs again.
If the Chiefs win the Super Bowl, their Iowa fans are not going to be in the mood for any whiff of negativity. So it’s possible the Super Bowl results could nudge the caucus results in one direction or another. Emotions around sporting events are at least as deep as those around politics.
Over the past dozen years, the team I grew up rooting for, the New York Giants, won the Super Bowl twice. If that’s happened to you and your team you already know what it feels like. One emerges from the game elated, feeling that everything is right with the world. One struts into work or school the next morning, smiling ear to ear. It’s not a mood conducive to dark conspiracy theories of the sort that a significant part of Sanders’ true believers regularly traffic in.
This is only a theory, but the Super Bowl and its result will be one of the last media events that will happen before the voting begins Monday evening at 7 p.m. Central Time. It may provide the mood under which the caucuses are held.
Another final media event comes a couple of hours from now, as I file these thoughts: At 8 p.m. Central Time (9 p.m. ET), Des Moines Register pollster Ann Selzer will go live on CNN with Chris Cuomo and announce her final measurements for candidate support and second-choice preferences in Monday’s caucuses.
We’ll be watching.
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