Forget gun control. Never mind a grand fiscal bargain. In March, there’s only one urgent national question facing Washingtonians that really, truly matters: How can President Obama help us win our NCAA men’s-basketball office pool?
Call it Baracketology: For the last half decade, Obama has made his March Madness bracket picks public. Some years, he has shown a winning touch (correctly picking 29 of 32 first-round games in 2011); other years, not so much (incorrectly picking the entire Final Four in 2010).
What can the rest of us learn from our commander in chief? After crunching the numbers, we identified four key lessons.
Final Four picks
First-round upset picks
Elite Eight picks
1. Be Conservative
Obama may be a Democrat, but he’s hardly a bracket liberal. In predicting a tournament renowned for its downright progressive upsets (when number-15 seed Lehigh knocked off number-2 seed Duke last year, it was college basketball’s answer to the 99 percent rising up against the 1 percent), the President prefers a cautious approach. To wit: Over five seasons, Obama has picked just one team seeded below number 3 (number-4 Pitt in 2008) to reach the Final Four. He also has predicted an average of 10.6 total upsets per bracket, roughly one game in which the higher seed loses per six games played. The President is similarly conservative in the wild and woolly 32-game first round, picking an average of only 6.4 upsets per year.
Turns out this is a wise approach.
Since 1985, the tournament has averaged just 8.1 first-round upsets. Moreover, only seven schools seeded below number 12 ever have made it to the Sweet Sixteen, while more than 70 percent of the Elite Eight has been composed of teams seeded between numbers 1 and 3. The upshot? Play it safe with the bulk of your bracket—particularly in the early rounds—and don’t bet on small-school underdogs to make deep runs. Practice Obama’s audacity of nope.
2. Don’t Be Too Conservative
If you want to win your pool, you’ll still have to pick a few early surprises. And you need to get them right. After all, Obama hasn’t posted a solid 74-percent first-round winning-pick percentage over five seasons by simply selecting higher seeds to win every game—favored teams won only 73 percent of their first-round games over the same span. The President was particularly prescient in 2011, hitting on five of his six upset picks and going 29-32 in the first round, a mark that reportedly would have placed him in the top 1 percent of the tens of thousands of fans who participated in a Yahoo online bracket contest.
In the pool-points-rich Elite Eight and beyond, however, you’re better off breaking with Obama’s play-it-safe strategy. On one hand, high seeds have a better chance of advancing; on the other, everyone else in your pool is likely picking the same handful of schools to reach the Final Four and the same 1-2 top teams to win it all. Make the same selections and the best you can do is tie your competitors. So look at the later rounds as an arbitrage opportunity: Double down on an undervalued high seed—such as number-3 seed and eventual national champion UConn in 2011—and give yourself a higher probability of winning your pool if your pick comes through.
Remember Obama’s scorching 2011 first-round performance? None of his Final Four picks—number-1 seeds Duke, Kansas, Pitt, and Ohio State—panned out. His bracket was utterly busted. Meanwhile, number-4 seed Kentucky reached the Final Four, while UConn and number-8 seed Butler (the previous year’s national runner-up) played in the championship game. Less presidential prudence would have gone a long way.
Best year: Went 44-63 overall in 2012, successfully picking two Final Four teams.
Best pick: Selected number-11 seed NC State to reach the 2012 Sweet Sixteen.
Worst years: Missed on the entire Final Four in 2010 and 2011.
Worst pick: Selected number-2 seed Missouri to reach the 2012 Final Four. The Tigers lost to number-15 seed Norfolk State in the first round.
3. School Spirit Is for Suckers
First Brother-in-Law Craig Robinson is the men’s basketball coach at Oregon State, which plays in the Pac-12 conference. Of course, you wouldn’t know that from Obama’s 2009 bracket: The President picked five of six Pac-12 (then Pac-10) teams to lose in the first round, three of them in upsets, largely because the conference underperformed during the regular season.
Your bracket should be similarly free of softhearted sentiment.
Last year, Harvard made the NCAA field for the first time since 1946. Obama picked his law-school alma mater to lose in the first round—and the Crimson did just that. In 2011 and 2009, he picked Illinois—proudly representing the state he calls home—to lose before the Sweet Sixteen. The Illini flamed out both times. Obama also has successfully picked against local schools Georgetown, American, and George Mason making deep runs.
By contrast, he selected Kansas to win the championship in 2010 and 2011. Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, was from that state. So what happened? The Jayhawks twice failed to reach the Final Four.
4. Keep Your Eyes on the Real Prize
While campaigning in Chapel Hill in 2008, then-presidential candidate Obama played a pickup game with the North Carolina Tar Heels, the team he’d picked to win the national championship. He later won the state’s Democratic primary—and then captured the key swing state in the general election, becoming the first Democrat to do so in 32 years.
This may not be a coincidence.
Why do politicians blatantly pander to sports fans? (Think Hillary Clinton in a Chicago Cubs—no, wait, make that New York Yankees—cap.) Because it can’t hurt. In fact, a 2010 study found that NCAA-tournament success corresponded with an approval-rating bump for Obama among fans of the schools that won games.
Unsurprising, then, that his election-year brackets carry a whiff of swing-state favoritism. In 2008, Obama picked three North Carolina and two of three Indiana schools to win in the first round and selected dark horse Pitt to reach the Final Four. (Hello, Pennsylvania!) In 2012, he picked Wisconsin, UNLV, and three of four Ohio schools in the first round, and he also selected number-11 seed NC State to reach the Sweet Sixteen by upsetting San Diego State and Georgetown.
What do the last two universities have in common? Call us cynical, but they’re both located in areas where Obama’s electoral votes already were locked up. If Baracketology can’t help you win your office pool, at least it might help you win your next campaign.
This article appears in the March 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.