Trump’s risky college football play

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Trump’s been specifically loud about the lack of football in the Big 10 — which houses college football powerhouses in key Great Lake battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — while omitting mention of the Pac-12, Mid-American and Mountain West conferences, which have also decided not to play this fall. “I’ve been calling for football to be back, including Big 10. Big 10, get with it. Open up your season, Big 10,” the President said at his Friday rally in New Hampshire.

A look at the numbers helps explain why Trump yearns for Big 10 college football to return to these states, but it also reveals why Trump should be careful for what he wishes (i.e. Americans don’t seem to be aching for college life or sports to return to normal).

Trump’s path to winning the White House shrinks considerably without winning in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. If former Vice President Joe Biden takes the three states and all of the states Hillary Clinton won in 2016, he’ll have over 270 electoral votes. Biden would almost certainly win all the Clinton states if he won in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
In order to win the election, Trump knows that he likely needs voters to think that life has returned as much as possible to normal. After all, he’s pretty much blown it in the minds of voters on his handling of the coronavirus. Trump’s approval ratings on the pandemic are around 40% or worse nationally and in states like Wisconsin.
Trump probably understands that college football being in full swing is a sign that life is getting back to normal to Midwesterners. According to a 2017 Washington Post poll, 51% of Midwesterners consider themselves fans of college football. That’s more than in the Northeast (30%) and West (36%), and nearly equal to the South (54%).
College football being back has the added bonus of being something that appeals to Trump’s base. According to a 2017 study of Google searches and media markets by FiveThirtyEight, college football was the men’s sport most searched for in pro-Trump areas compared to pro-Clinton areas. (Pro basketball, for comparison, was searched most in anti-Trump areas.)
A look at the data also shows that a lot of voters do want some sports leagues in action. In a recent CNN/SSRS poll, 63% of Trump supporters think the pro sports leagues should be playing. This is true in the Midwest as well, where 65% of Trump voters said this.

Among all voters, pro sports is certainly more popular than Trump, himself, is. The CNN poll found a within the margin of error result for pro sports coming back (48%) to it not (46%). In the Midwest, it was 49% for pro sports to 44% against it.

View 2020 presidential election polling

But where Trump could be miscalculating is that pro sports may be something different than college sports. Professionals, after all, are paid, while college students currently are not.

As Geoffrey Skelley of FiveThirtyEight noted earlier this month, Americans are more apprehensive about starting up the college sports season (including football) than they are professional sports. An average of the polls that have asked about at least delaying college sports shows that a majority of Americans and Midwesterners are for it.
That matches how Americans feel about college in general. Last month, a majority of voters (59%), including in the Midwest (51%), said opening colleges would be unsafe in a Quinnipiac University poll. Most Americans either wanted college to not open on-campus learning at all (26%) or with significant changes (48%), according to a July AP-NORC poll.

Now, it could absolutely be the case that Trump discussing the issue a lot will bring more voters to his side. But since when did Trump trumpeting an issue make it so that a majority agreed with it?

More likely, Trump recognizes that he is trailing in the polls two months out from an election and is looking to see what sticks. Maybe college football will be a good issue for him, but there’s plenty of reason to doubt it.

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