Obama’s NCAA Basketball Bracket: Predictable and Pandering

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Like your poker winnings and fantasy teams, nobody cares about your NCAA basketball tournament bracket. Unless you are the President of the United States. Barack Obama has a squad of professional scribes devoted to tracking his every waking movement. Surely he knows his March Madness picks are laden with meaning.

As any veteran Bracketologist knows, there are as many ways to fill out an office pool as there are permutations, and none of them are surefire guarantees of success. You can choose based on geography or rooting interest. You can tap teams with the best mascots or uniforms. I have a friend (a graduate of Harvard, which is making its first tournament appearance in 66 years) who divined winners based on the school’s academic prowess — an abysmal strategy on its face, but one that happened to work.

Then there is the prevailing formula, which is to select according to seed. In gambling parlance, this is known as chalking. It involves betting almost exclusively on heavy favorites, and it is, generally speaking, a smart yet boring way to do pretty well. In a riff titled “What Your Bracket Says About You,” one writer posits that gamblers who chalk “feel that societal order must be preserved at all costs, and that disagreeing with the wisdom of the selection committee is the first step toward anarchy. Upsets are for hippies.”

Obama’s bracket is really chalky. His picks are so vanilla they make Mitt Romney look wild. His Final Four is composed entirely of two #1 seeds and two #2’s widely considered better than their quadrant’s top dogs. Just one minor outlier (#3 seed Baylor) disrupts the favorites’ dominance by crashing the Elite Eight. Obama’s bracket has only two putative upsets, and neither exactly goes out on a limb. In the South regional, he picks #12 Virginia Commonwealth to oust #5 Wichita State in the first round. There’s been a 12-over-5 upset every year in NCAA history but three, and after a run to the NCAA Finals last spring, VCU is as good a choice as any. In the Midwest bracket, Obama picks #11 seed North Carolina State to top #6 San Diego State (despite the lower seed, the Vegas sharps favor NC State) and then to go on to beat #3 seed Georgetown in the second round. Georgetown is a Jesuit school in a tony precinct of Washington, D.C., a city that counts few fans among the President’s constituents.

Which brings us to the other notable aspect of Obama’s bracket: it is a masterpiece of harmless pandering. The President is a believer in “momentum” and point guards, he tells ESPN’s Andy Katz, but he also has a thing for schools in swing states. Three of his Final Four picks — Ohio State, Missouri and North Carolina — hail from November battlegrounds. As does NC State, his lone true upset. One wonders whether his selections in other stray toss-up games (New Mexico over Louisville; Iowa State over Connecticut) were subtly influenced by the Electoral College map. On Tuesday night, he schlepped British Prime Minister David Cameron on a quick jaunt to Dayton, where the two world leaders sat courtside at a preliminary bout between tournament welterweights Mississippi Valley State and Western Kentucky. “The heartland is what it’s all about,” he gushed to one reporter.

Obama is a genuine basketball fan who knows his stuff. So Tar Heel fans should be heartened that he picked Roy Williams’ team to cut down the nets in New Orleans. Last year his bracket ranked in the 87th percentile among ESPN entrants, and his re-election campaign is holding its own bracket challenge this time around. It’s a nice way to remind voters you’re a regular guy. Particularly the voters he really wants in November. As for Mitt Romney, Obama’s likely rival, he told a reporter he wasn’t “plugged-in well enough” to fill out a sheet this year. Which is probably best. It’s impossible to please everybody.