Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Buckeye

Today I’m going to go watch the Ohio State Buckeyes play the Michigan State Spartans at Ohio Stadium.  It will be a noon kickoff, on a cold day.  That’s about all I can tell you with any certainty, because I sure can’t predict which Ohio State team might show up to play the game.

crib-jekyllThis Ohio State squad is a total head-scratcher.  They play uninspired football against Oklahoma and get drubbed, then right the ship and convincingly win a bunch of games against the Big Ten Little Sisters of the Poor, then they stage a titanic comeback to beat Penn State in a thriller that puts them squarely back in the conversation for the College Football Playoffs . . . then they lay a colossal egg against Iowa and get obliterated.  The Iowa loss not only was a butt-kicking, it was a revelation of sorts:  this team obviously hasn’t jelled, and when things started to go south against the Hawkeyes, there was no one who stood up and made the key stop, or secured the key turnover, or broke the tackle and made the long run to turn the momentum around.  Iowa was the kind of game, and the kind of embarrassing result, that never would have happened to other Ohio State teams.

Having never been an athlete, I can’t possibly understand what goes in to playing college football at the big-school, Ohio State level, but this year’s team shows that there is a mental component to the game that is every bit as important as the physical component.  If a team isn’t focused, if the players don’t play with the right attitude and drive, if the athletes don’t give that extra effort that might make the difference between failure and success, size and speed don’t mean all that much.  When everybody on the field is an elite athlete in their own right, grit and determination and toughness count for a lot.  Against Iowa, the Buckeyes just didn’t have that indefinable quality.  I’m guessing that Urban Meyer and his coaches have spent a lot of time thinking about and working on the team’s mental game this past week.

So at today’s game, will we see Dr. Jekyll, or Mr. Buckeye?  I’m sure hoping that the coaches figured out how to get the players ready for this game.

Ohio’s Quadrennial Electoral Regrets

Here we go again.  We’ve gone through the first part of the presidential campaign, with votes in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.  The Democratic and Republican fields have narrowed . . . and weirdness prevails.

Let’s face it:  none of these states is really very demographically or culturally representative of the country as a whole, but still they get to be the filters that sift through the candidates for the rest of us.  So we get to see cardigan-wearing candidates yakking at town halls and hugging distraught young people.  We try to understand obscure delegate selection rules — why caucuses, and not outright elections? — and hear about which Republican is going to appeal most to the born-again crowd.  And Dixville North, New Hampshire gets it’s name on the national newscasts, just as it does every four years.

And each result in these early contests gets blown up to titanic proportions, even if the real differences are small.  Consider yesterday’s Democratic caucuses in Nevada.  Hillary Clinton won with 6,238 votes versus Bernie Sanders 5,589 votes.  That’s less than 650 out of less than 12,000 votes, yet now the pundits say HRC has Big Mo on her side.  And 12,000 votes?  In Ohio we get that many people at some high school football games.  Should a few thousand casino workers in Las Vegas and Reno really have such an influence on presidential politics?

Every four years we seem to ask this question — why don’t states like Ohio have a larger role in the presidential selection process? It’s being asked again this year, too.  Ohio is a state that closely mirrors the country as a whole.  It’s got big cities and rural areas, it’s got labor unions and small businesses, it’s ethnically and culturally diverse, and it’s politically diverse, too.  And, perhaps most importantly, every election cycle Ohio ends up being one of the crucial “battleground states,” whereas no candidates are going to Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina when general elections are in the balance and Election Day is drawing near.  Yet, in the primaries, we don’t get to Ohio until after the candidates wade through predominantly white states like Iowa and New Hampshire and largely evangelical states like Iowa and South Carolina, and some candidates who conceivably might be viable have dropped out because they’ve run out or money or failed to appeal sufficiently to the born again contingent.  This year may present the same kind of scenario.

I know, some people will talk about the historic role of Iowa and New Hampshire, or say that it’s good for candidates to start in “retail” settings before they move to “wholesale” politics, but those are just rationalizations for a candidate selection process that just makes no sense.  So this year we say what we say every four years:  why not start the electoral process where it always ends up — in Ohio?

Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

Here’s another weirdness about Iowa.  In 6 of the 1,681 precincts that caucused last night, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders ended up in a tie and flipped a coin to decide who should get a delegate.  It’s not exactly a rational way to pick a President, is it?

bigstock-coin-flip-5807921But it gets even weirder, because Hillary Clinton won all six of the coin tosses.  What are the odds of winning six coin tosses in a row?  As simple mathematics would reveal, and as several newspapers have reported, Clinton had exactly a one-in-64 chance — or 1.6 percent — of winning all six flips.  Most of us could never dream of winning even two of three coin flips in a row, much less a half dozen.

What kind of coin were they using for these flips, anyway?  Was it of the two-headed variety, or improperly weighted, or did Sanders’ minions fall for the old heads I win, tails you lose trick?

Hillary Clinton may not have fared as well as she wanted in the Iowa caucuses, but she sure lucked out in the coin toss category.  She probably should have bought a PowerBall ticket.

Iowa Is Weird

Kish and I spent last night watching the news networks’ breathless coverage of the Iowa caucuses (“Tonight, America finally casts its first votes of 2016!”) and we came away with one overwhelming reaction:  Iowa is weird.  In fact, it’s very weird.

It’s not the people of Iowa who are weird, of course — it’s the process.  Rather than trooping off to the private voting booths like the rest of us, Iowans employ a strange caucus system that requires you to leave your home at night in the dead of winter, sit in different corners of a church or hall, and yawn through speeches by supporters of the different candidates.  This year, if you were a Republican caucusgoer, that meant enduring speeches by supporters of 11 different candidates before your vote is counted.

usa-elections-iowa-caucusHow many of us would put up with that appalling time-suck, and how many perfectly rational Iowans who would otherwise vote the normal way decide to skip the caucuses?  The answer is:  a lot.  Even with all of the media hype about record turnouts for the caucuses, the fact is that only a fraction of the Iowans who vote in the general election participate in the caucuses.

But the caucuses are even weirder as a result of the 24-hour media machine.  Last night we watched as reporters and cameras prowled caucus sites, shouldering their ways between voters and actually recording Iowans trying to convince each other to change their allegiances.  Of course, most of us like the idea of casting a private ballot in a voting booth (or what passes for a voting booth these days) and would no more want a camera recording our every move as we exercised our franchise than we would want to watch a 24-hour marathon of Barney episodes.  The caucus participants also were heavily “entrance-polled.”  And at least some Iowans have become so wedded to the supposed importance of their caucuses that they say that the amount of time a candidate physically spends in Iowa is a factor in their ultimate decision — while others earnestly assure the rest of America that they take seriously their role as “first voters.”  (Stay humble, Iowa!)

So let the pundits talk about how the Iowa caucuses are really a good way to start the process, because candidates need to get out and press the flesh and do “town halls” and eat with the locals at diners and rub elbows with the evangelicals at church.  In reality, the demographics of the participants in the bizarre Iowa caucus process aren’t remotely representative of those of the rest of the country, and the caucus process itself no doubt exacerbates the discrepancy.

This year the caucuses will serve a useful purpose of winnowing out the fields; Martin O’Malley on the D side and Mike Huckabee on the R side both “suspended their campaigns” after dismal showings, and hopefully more faltering candidates on the overcrowded Republican side will throw in the towel, too.  But don’t expect me to care too much about the results, otherwise.  (Although, if I were a Hillary Clinton supporter, I’d be concerned that she barely beat Bernie Sanders and got less than 50 percent of the caucusgoers support after being the prohibitive, well-heeled favorite for months.)  Let’s move on now to states where they hold real elections, shall we?

What If They Gave A Debate And Nobody Watched?

Tonight, at 9 p.m. on NBC, Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will square off in a primetime debate between the two leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for President.

Will you be watching?  If so, you might not have much company.

rtx1zf68-1024x696The ratings for the Democratic presidential candidate debates have, well, suffered by comparison to the ratings for the Republican contests.  The most recent Democratic debate, on ABC in December, attracted 6.7 million viewers.  The Republican debate in December on CNN, in contrast, got 18 million viewers, and earlier debates among the GOP field pulled in 25 million and 24 million viewers.  The most recent Republican debate, earlier this week on the Fox Business Network, was watched by 11 million Americans.

Why are the Democratic debates getting trounced?  Some simply attribute it to the Donald Trump factor, reasoning that his supporters watch the debates because they like what he has to say, his detractors watch hoping he puts his foot in his mouth, and non-political people watch because he’s entertaining.  Others think the Republican debates simply have more uncertainty and drama than the Democratic contests, where it was widely believed that the debates are just a formality on Hillary Clinton’s inevitable march to the nomination.

Still others (like the Sanders campaign) note that the Democratic debates have been scheduled on Saturday nights, traditionally not a heavy TV-watching period, and argue the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign may have made those arrangements specifically to keep people from hearing what Bernie Sanders has to say.  It is weird that the debates have been set for dates and times that aren’t exactly prime viewing periods, and it seems at least plausible that the Clinton campaign’s ultra-cautious, play-it-safe approach was a factor in the scheduling.  If so, that’s kind of strange, when you think about it.  Either the Clinton people think Hillary can’t out-debate a self-declared Socialist, or — perhaps more likely — they think the voters in Democratic primaries and caucuses are so liberal that Sander’s socialist positions will be attractive if the likely primary voters just find out what he is saying.

If that’s the Clinton camp’s strategy, is it working?  It’s not entirely clear.  Sanders apparently has closed the gap in Iowa and is doing well in New Hampshire, although Clinton has increased her lead in national polls. But the national polls really don’t mean a lot when it comes to primaries and caucuses, and if Sanders can pull upsets in Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s not hard to imagine Clinton’s big national lead, and the sense of inevitability that her supporters have tried to project, melting away in favor of the new guy.  In fact, the New York Times is reporting that some members of the Clinton campaign — including Bill Clinton — think it was a mistake to not come out swinging against Sanders at the outset.  Part of a more aggressive approach, of course, would have meant holding debates at times when people might actually be inclined to tune in.

So, will you be watching tonight, or not?  After all, a new episode of Downton Abbey is airing on PBS.

Happy Picture, Happy Thoughts

8dbb109f-2811-4942-b624-5d00d644946cOhio State isn’t playing in the Big Ten Championship Game today — more’s the pity — but that doesn’t mean we can’t still revel in last weekend’s crushing defeat of That School Up North.

And in the meantime, we’ll think happy thoughts about the dominoes that need to fall for the Buckeyes to get back into the playoffs to defend their National Championship.  I think we need Michigan State to beat Iowa convincingly in the Big Ten Championship Game, along with Alabama losing in the SEC Championship Game or Clemson losing in the ACC Championship Game — or maybe both.  It’s a long shot, perhaps, but it’s still a shot.

Thanks to Mrs. Nesser for this picture of the scoreboard at the Big House, memorializing the Buckeyes’ dominating win.

Wussifying Football

In the first quarter of today’s Ohio State-Iowa game, an Iowa receiver caught a pass on a crossing pattern and got drilled in the chest by Buckeye defensive back Bradley Roby.  The Iowa receiver, to his credit, held on to the ball.

The officials dropped a flag.  They ended up calling a “targeting” penalty on Roby for what certainly looked to me like a clean, if hard, hit, and then ejected Roby from the game.  The explanation for the penalty is that a receiver who catches the ball is “defenseless” and shouldn’t be drilled.

Huh?  This is, or was, football.  The game is all about hard hits.  I’m not in favor of headhunting, or spearing someone who is on the ground, or clothes-lining a receiver in the neck, but Roby’s hit was a classic football hit — shoulder to chest, trying to jar the ball loose.  The fact that Roby was not only penalized, but in fact ejected from the game, for such a hit tells me that the game is changing, and not for the better.

At last week’s Browns’ game we saw a similar call.  As the Lions were driving for a score to try to put the game away, a Browns player hit the Lions QB in the chest just as the ball was released.  The pass was incomplete, but the Browns were called for an unnecessary roughness penalty, and the game was over.

I’m sure these rules changes are being made, at least in part, in order to protect players and to avoid the concussions that have plagued football at every level.  I also suspect, however, that the motivation, at least in part, is to favor the offense.  In the Ohio State game today, one Iowa running back typically put his head down and used his helmet to try to batter the would-be tacklers.  It’s a time-honored football technique — but why should the offensive player be able to lead with his head when a defensive player can’t?

We may be heading toward a day when every football game is a 52-49 affair and offenses move up and down the field to the delight of offensive-minded fans.  If that happens, it’s too bad — because it’s not really football.  I’m hoping that the officials in charge of devising new penalties avoid wussifying football to the point where the sport isn’t really recognizable any more.

The Iowa Test Of Basic Skills

When I was in grade school, I took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.  It purported to measure proficiency in things like reading and math.  Today at 3:30, the Ohio State Buckeyes take their own version of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.  They’ll be lining up against the Iowa Hawkeyes looking to demonstrate the basic skills of blocking, tackling, running, and playing a full four quarters of football.

IMG_1439The Buckeyes are undefeated — which is an accomplishment in and of itself — but they haven’t been overly impressive, and it has their fans worried.  They’ve beaten the two best teams they’ve played, Wisconsin and Northwestern, but they didn’t blow their doors off like people hoped they would.  The Buckeyes clearly have talent, but it doesn’t look like they’ve fully gelled.  The Buckeye Nation is hoping that happens today.

Iowa looks to be a decent team in a pretty weak conference.  The Hawkeyes are 4-2, with losses coming to Northern Illinois and Michigan State.  Iowa tries to run the ball — although they had no success on the ground against Michigan State — and plays pretty good defense.  They’ll face an Ohio State team that can move the ball up and down the field with a lot of different weapons but also has been giving up a lot of yards and a lot of points.

Ohio State fans always assume that wins will occur and look ahead to whether Ohio State will make the National Championship game.  The team, of course, can’t afford to do that.  Today’s game against Iowa gives them a chance to continue to work on coming together, playing better defense against the pass, and being more consistent and focused on offense.  The Buckeyes need to take the rest of this season one game at a time, and work on improving their basic skills from week to week.  If they can do that — starting today against Iowa — the National Championship game will take care of itself.

The Little Big Ten

Today the Big Ten kicks off league play.  It should be a competitive conference race, because the Big Ten clearly doesn’t have any powerhouse teams this year.

The results of pre-conference play were not kind to the teams in the Old Conference.  Michigan got pulverized by Alabama and then played badly in a loss to Notre Dame.  Wisconsin lost to Oregon State and has struggled mightily against mediocre teams like Utah State and UNLV.  Pre-season favorites Michigan State and Nebraska have fallen from the ranks of the unbeaten, with the Spartans getting pounded by Notre Dame and the Cornhuskers dropping a winnable game to UCLA.  Iowa, Penn State, and Illinois already have two defeats.  Minnesota is undefeated, but hasn’t played anybody.  The best team in the conference could be Northwestern, which has knocked off Syracuse, Vanderbilt, and Boston College.

The marquee games today are Wisconsin at Nebraska and Ohio State at Michigan State.  The Badgers will be trying to get their offense back on track against a Nebraska defense that was dismal in its only game against a tough foe.  The Ohio State-Michigan State contest is intriguing because MSU handed OSU an embarrassing home loss last year, when the Spartans manhandled the Buckeye offense.  Ohio State is undefeated, but it has played mediocre football against inferior teams and hasn’t played a road game yet.  The tilt in East Lansing today will tell us a lot about whether Ohio State is competitive — and also whether Braxton Miller can weave his offensive magic against a very stout defense.

Thanks to NCAA penalties, Ohio State can’t play in a bowl game or the Big Ten conference championship game this year.  If the team wants to make something of this lost year, it needs to win games like today’s match-up.

The Race Rolls On, And The Big Issues Linger

The Republican presidential primaries, already seemingly endless, roll on.  With Newt Gingrich’s big win in South Carolina, the race is in disarray.  Gingrich is on the rise, Mitt Romney’s shield of inevitability has been dented, and Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are hanging on.

The focus now moves to Florida.  As has come to be the pattern, that means another debate tonight (No!!!!!!), lots more negative ads, and probably some new revelations before Florida goes to the polls on January 31.  We’ll hear lots of buzz words and scripted retorts and talking points, but what we probably won’t hear is much substantive talk about exactly how the remaining contenders are going to tackle the budget deficit.

You can argue about how we select a President in our country, and whether beginning with states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina makes any sense.  The early primary voters never seem to share my perspective on the big issues of the day, but perhaps that is just a reminder that ours is a large and diverse land where people have many different views.  In Iowa, social issues always seem to take center stage.  In South Carolina, the votes for Gingrich seemed to be motivated, at least in part, by anger — anger at the news media, and anger at President Obama — and a desire to select a candidate who, the voters believe, will cut the President to ribbons in debates.

Social issues just aren’t on my radar screen, I’m not mad at the news media, and scoring debating points with glib jabs at the President isn’t important to me.  Instead, I just want to hear how specifics about the candidates will cut our spending, balance our budget, resolve our debt issues, and get our economy growing again.  Those are the issues that are most important to me and, I think, most important to our country.  Maybe — just maybe — some Floridians share that view.

Another Turn Of Fortune’s Wheel In Iowa

Thankfully, the Iowa Republican caucuses are tomorrow.  I don’t think I could take even one more day of breathless reports about the latest polling data.

I’ve written before about how the Iowa polls seem like Fortune’s Wheel — constantly turning, with always-new, surging would-be frontrunners who quickly crash and burn and then are replaced with latest darling.    Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and now Newt Gingrich have all had their time at the top of the wheel, followed by speedy tumbles to the bottom.  According to the final Des Moines Register poll, the latest candidate to catch fire is Rick Santorum, the former Senator from Pennsylvania who is popular among social conservatives.  The poll reports that Santorum has broken into the top three, trailing only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.  Gingrich, the former flavor of the month, apparently has talked his way back into the pack of also-rans.

The polls make voters in the Hawkeye State seem as silly and fickle as a crush-addled teenager.  Given that, perhaps reporters should stop writing critically about how Romney can’t seem to be break through the 30 percent barrier and write admiringly instead about his ability to steadily retain a solid core of support among an undecided and capricious Iowa electorate.

The Big Ten Gets Interesting

I don’t like the idea of the “Legends” and “Leaders” divisions of the Big Ten, but I have to admit that the first years of the new format has turned out to be very interesting.  Even the most diehard Big Ten fans grudgingly must admit that there are no dominant teams in the conference this year — which means everything is up for grabs.

In the “Legends” division, Michigan State leads at 4-1, with Michigan, Nebraska, and Iowa right behind at 3-2.  Yesterday’s games made the division race a lot more interesting, with Northwestern gutting out a shocking win at Nebraska and Iowa toppling Michigan.  All of the leaders in the Legends division (pun intended) have tough games remaining; Michigan State must play Iowa and Northwestern; Nebraska plays Iowa, Michigan, and Penn State; Iowa has Michigan State and Nebraska; and Michigan still has Illinois, Nebraska and the Buckeyes.  The eventual winner of this division is anybody’s guess.

In the “Leaders” division, Penn State leads the way.  The Nittany Lions are undefeated in the Big Ten and have only one loss overall, but they aren’t getting much respect — largely because the general perception is that the team hasn’t played many tough games.  That will change straightaway, as Penn State must close with Nebraska at home and then Ohio State and Wisconsin on the road.  Ohio State and Wisconsin are 3-2, and both will be rooting for the other to knock off the Nittany Lions — but then lose another game, besides.

The Buckeyes hope to be in a position to win the division by winning out, but yesterday’s closer-than-expected win over Indiana shows the danger of looking ahead and coming out flat.  The Buckeyes can’t afford another uninspired performance.  They had better be ready to play when they travel to West Lafayette to take on the Boilermakers next Saturday if they want to stay in contention for the Big Ten title game.

The Economics Of Early Primaries

Don’t look now, but states are jockeying to move up the dates of their primaries, caucuses, and other electoral contrivances.  Florida has indicated that it is going to move its primary to January 31.  If it does so, expect South Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Iowa to follow suit, so they can maintain their current positions in the presidential pecking order.  Such a result could mean the Iowa caucuses happen on January 9, 2012.  Happy New Year!  It’s time to vote!

It’s silly to be voting in January, 10 months before the actual election.  No rational person would want to front-load the process because it increases the risk that a flukey candidate might get on a roll and knock everyone out of the race, only to be exposed months later as a hapless lightweight who isn’t ready for prime time.  Rick Perry’s recent bumbling, fumbling, stumbling performance at a Florida debate aptly demonstrates why it makes sense to draw out the process, to give the candidates the chance to mature and to give the public a reasonable amount of time to get to know who they’re voting for.

So why is there this irresistible impetus to keep moving things up?  States might claim it’s to maintain a tradition or because they want to have a say in selecting the candidates, but I think the real reason is money.  Huge sums are spent on political campaigns these days, and the media flocks to the early primary states.  Early primaries have more candidates and more campaigns spending cash, and states want to get their share.  So why not schedule an early primary and then sit back and watch the hordes of candidates, staffers, consultants, pundits, and reporters descend, fill your hotels, restaurants and bars, buy the TV and radio spots and employ the printing presses, and pump up those hospitality and sales tax receipts?

Early primaries are good business.

Worst Trophy Ever

College football features lots of weird trophies that are steeped in tradition, like old oaken buckets and wooden turtles and long axes, among others.  It would be hard to say which of the many trophies is the weirdest or the worst — until now.

A few days ago the Iowa Corn Growers Association unveiled the Cy-Hawk Trophy that will be given to the winner of the annual game between the Iowa State Cyclones and the Iowa Hawkeyes.  (Cyclones and Hawkeyes = Cy-Hawk.  Pretty creative, eh?)  The trophy features a farmer kneeling next to a basket of corn, presenting an ear to a young boy wearing a baseball cap while a woman holding a young child looks on.  What it has to do with sports generally, or football specifically, is anybody’s guess.  The CEO of Iowa Corn says, however, that the trophy represents “the people and characteristics that are uniquely Iowan.”

Perhaps — that is, if Iowans are slow-witted corn cultists.  The farmer seems to be amazed that corn has sprung from the ground and is ready to perform some kind of ritual to celebrate its arrival.  The kid in the baseball cap, the girl, and their Mom, on the other hand, presumably have lived on the farm long enough to have seen an ear of corn before and don’t find it to be a particularly awesome object, no matter what weird old Dad might believe.  Seriously, what kind of bizarre life must these people lead if they are regularly kneeling around the family corn basket?  How many people in Iowa even have a corn basket, anyway?  And what’s with the trophy name?  “Cy-Hawk” sounds like something somebody with a phlegm problem might do to clear their clogged airways.

If you were a football player, would you even want to win this trophy?  Would anyone stand up and make an impassioned Knute Rockne-type speech about the need to win back the treasured Cy-Hawk?  And if your team did prevail, would your school want to prominently display it anywhere that it could be seen by, say, potential recruits who don’t happen to worship the Mighty Corn God?

Will Anyone Watch, And Does Anyone Care?

Tonight the eight declared Republican candidates for President will debate in Iowa.  The debate is nationally televised on Fox News.  Will anyone watch, and does anyone care?

The lead-up to the debate is filled with the kind of phony urgency that sets my teeth on edge.  The Reuters story, for example, notes that the debate is two days “before an Iowa straw poll that will test the strength of their campaigns” and breathlessly adds:  “With less than six months remaining before Iowa holds the first presidential nominating contest in 2012, time is running short for candidates to begin making up ground.”  So, let me get this straight:  the debate may affect the outcome of a non-binding “straw poll” being taken six months before delegates will be selected?  Could someone explain again why this debate is so crucial?

The constant, creeping advancement of the campaign season is always ludicrous, but this year it is offensive.  Our economy is in the dumper.  Our national credit rating just got cut.  We’re fighting in ill-defined conflicts across the globe.  Millions of Americans are out of work.  Our budget deficit is out of control.  In short, we’ve got lots of important stuff to worry about — much more important than whether Michele Bachmann’s showing makes her the presumed Iowa front-runner or whether Rick Santorum should throw in the towel.  At this point, I couldn’t care less.