It is, as sports fanatics everywhere know, Selection Sunday, when the 65-team field of the NCAA basketball tournament is revealed, and–thanks to an entire industry of “bracketology”–the one or two remaining mysteries about “bubble teams” and seedings are resolved. I will not watch the official Selection Sunday show on television, with its endlessly tedious references to “dancing” and “dance cards,” and its sadistic focus on live coverage of a team or two that will be left out. I will view the brackets online, however, and try to finally figure out which team or teams I will embrace during next week’s frenetic first and second round games. My beloved Georgia Bulldogs will not, of course, be in the mix; they are still rebuilding from the calamity of the Jim Harrick years, and after a brief spate of exciting success earlier in the year, finished 15-15, probably not qualifying for an NIT bid. But their future looks bright. (The Georgia women’s team will, as always, be in the tournament, and perhaps they won’t break my heart with an early upset loss this time around). Selection Sunday always brings back fond memories of the one time I actually attended NCAA tournament games: it was in 1990, in New Orleans’ Superdome (ah! how painful it is to type those words today!). Georgia Tech was playing in the regional semifinals and finals, and I decided to put aside my usual disdain for the Dirt Daubers and cheer for them as a matter of home-state chauvinism. I managed to get tickets through a media contact for seats better than that enjoyed by Tech’s president, and was rewarded with two incredibly exciting games: the Jackets beat Michigan State in the semis on a controversial last-split-second shot by Kenny Anderson, and then beat Minnesota in overtime for the championship. Aside from the games themselves, my most vivid memory was of the young woman from Minnesota who sat behind me in the Final, dressed up as a gopher, and constantly recited the school’s charmingly atavistic cheer, which sounded like something out of an early Mickey Rooney college movie (Sota! Sota! G-o-o-o-o Gophers! Rah!). That was sixteen years ago, and I wonder: where is that woman today? Does she still dress up as a gopher? And does she blog? The whole scene was a nice reminder of the essential silliness of the tribal loyalty so many of us assign to sports teams. Years after this event, I learned that my paternal grandfather, who died when my father was an infant, actually attended Georgia Tech for a brief while before the money ran out and he had to get a full-time job. Nobody in my extended, and generally non-college-educated family, attended the University of Georgia. My father was largely indifferent to sports, and my mother, good southern liberal that she was, reserved her loyalities for the Dodgers baseball team that played Jackie Robinson. Yet I was a confirmed Georgia Bulldog fan from early childhood. Why is that? I couldn’t possibly have known that I would wind up attending law school in Athens. Was it the mascot, UGA? The school colors? I have no clue.And so, on this Selection Sunday, I cast about for an irrational attachment to other peoples’ tribes. Should I risk further identification as a Washington Insider by supporting Georgetown or George Washington? Choose a Southern Surrogate for the absent Bulldogs? Get into an emotionally satisfying and vaguely progressive Mid-Major obsession? Speaking for God knows how many other people who face this particular dilemma, I must say, dear friends, that this is why they call it March Madness.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
Staring at the polls and recent precedents, I offered some blunt thoughts at New York on exactly how popular Biden needs to be in 2024:
There’s abundant evidence that if it were held today, a general election rematch of Joe Biden and Donald Trump would show the 46th president in serious trouble. He’s trailing Trump in national and most battleground-state polls, his job-approval rating is at or below 40 percent, his 2020 electoral base is very shaky, and the public mood, particularly on the economy, is decidedly sour.
The standard response of Biden loyalists to the bad recent polling news is to say “The election is a year away!,” as though public-opinion data this far out is useless. But it’s only useless if Biden turns things around, and while there’s plenty of time for that to happen, there has to be a clear sense of what he needs to secure victory and how to go about meeting those needs. Vox’s Andrew Prokop provides a good summary of possible explanations for Biden’s current position:
“One theory: Biden is blowing it — the polls are a clear warning sign that the president has unique flaws as a candidate, and another Democrat would likely be doing better.
“A second theory: Biden’s facing a tough environment — voters have decided they don’t like the economy or the state of the world, and, fairly or not, he’s taking the brunt of it.
“And a third theory: Biden’s bad numbers will get better — voters aren’t even paying much attention yet, and as the campaign gears up, the president will bounce back.”
The first theory, in my opinion, is irrelevant; Biden isn’t going to change his mind about running for reelection, and it’s simply too late for any other Democrat to push him aside. And the second and third theories really point to the same conclusion: The president is currently too unpopular to win in 2024 and needs to find a way to change the dynamics of a general-election contest with Trump.
There’s not much question that Biden needs to improve his popularity at least modestly. There is only one president in living memory with job-approval ratings anything like Biden’s going into his reelection year who actually won; that would be Harry Truman in 1948, and there’s a reason his successful reelection is regarded as one of the great upsets in American political history. There are others, including Barack Obama, who looked pretty toasty at this point in a first term and still won reelection but who managed to boost their popularity before Election Day (Obama boosted his job-approval rating, per Gallup, from 42 percent at the end of November 2011 to 52 percent when voters went to the polls 11 months later).
Given the current state of partisan polarization, it’s unlikely Biden can get majority job approval next year even with the most fortunate set of circumstances. But the good news for him is that he probably doesn’t have to. Job-approval ratings are crucial indicators in a normal presidential reelection cycle that is basically a referendum on the incumbent’s record. Assuming Trump is the Republican nominee, 2024 will not be a normal reelection cycle for three reasons.
First, this would be the exceedingly rare election matching two candidates with presidential records to defend, making it inherently a comparative election (it has happened only once, in 1888, when President Benjamin Harrison faced former president Grover Cleveland). In some respects (most crucially, perceptions of the economy), the comparison might favor Trump. In many others (e.g., Trump’s two impeachments and insurrectionary actions feeding his current legal peril), the comparison will likely favor Biden.
Second, Trump is universally known and remains one of the most controversial figures in American political history. It’s not as though he will have an opportunity to remold his persona or repudiate words and actions that make him simply unacceptable to very nearly half the electorate. Trump’s favorability ratio (40 percent to 55 percent, per RealClearPolitics polling averages) is identical to Biden’s.
And third, Trump seems determined to double down on the very traits that make him so controversial. His second-term plans are straightforwardly authoritarian, and his rhetoric of dehumanizing and threatening revenge against vast swaths of Americans is getting notably and regularly harsher.
So Biden won’t have to try very hard to make 2024 a comparative — rather than a self-referendum — election. And his strategic goal is simply to make himself more popular than his unpopular opponent while winning at least a draw among the significant number of voters who don’t particularly like either candidate.
This last part won’t be easy. Trump won solidly in both 2016 and 2020 among voters who said they didn’t like either major-party candidate (the saving grace for Biden was that there weren’t that many of them in 2020; there will probably be an awful lot of them next November). So inevitably, the campaign will need to ensure that every persuadable voter has a clear and vivid understanding of Trump’s astounding character flaws and extremist tendencies. What will make this process even trickier is the availability of robust independent and minor-party candidates who could win a lot of voters disgusted by a Biden-Trump rock fight.
So the formula for a Biden reelection is to do everything possible to boost his job-approval ratings up into the mid-40s or so and then go after Trump with all the abundant ammunition the 45th president has provided him. The more popular Biden becomes, the more he can go back to the “normalcy” messaging that worked (albeit narrowly) in 2020.
If the economy goes south or overseas wars spread or another pandemic appears, not even the specter of an unleashed and vengeful authoritarian in the White House will likely save Biden; the same could be true if Uncle Joe suffers a health crisis or public lapses in his powers of communication. But there’s no reason he cannot win reelection with some luck and skill — and with the extraordinary decision of the opposition party to insist on nominating Trump for a third time. Yes, the 45th president has some political strengths of his own, but he would uniquely help Biden overcome the difficulty of leading a profoundly unhappy nation.