Baracketology: Obama’s Record on Picking March Madness Winners

How has our hoops-loving President’s record fared during March Madness? Here’s a closer look at Obama’s NCAA bracket performance, 2008–12.
Photograph by Pete Souza/White House.
Photograph by Pete Souza/White House.

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

What can the rest of us learn from our commander in chief?
After crunching the numbers, we identified four key lessons.

Overall picks

Championship picks

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

Best pick: Selected number-11 seed NC State to reach the 2012 Sweet

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

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

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

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

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.

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