A peculiar thing happened this Saturday in Atlanta. Spotted among the hundreds of cardboard signs near the set of ESPN’s “College Gameday” were at least two signs apparently supporting Sen. Luther Strange, who is in a runoff later this month against Roy Moore for the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat.
For those who missed the three-hour college football pregame show that morning, one sign was a giant cardboard head of Luther Strange, and another said “Even Saban Supports Strange,” spelling out ESPN vertically.
Normally ESPN frowns on political signs at these events. (They prefer that their talking heads take a more overt approach, like shaming people into accepting the latest social justice trope.) But to get this past the official sign-watchers at “College Gameday” and on TV was a brilliant gesture by some pro-Luther folks.
That day, the Alabama Crimson Tide were playing the Florida State Seminoles in a much-ballyhooed matchup. Thus, there were probably a good many eyeballs tuned in across the state.
Most election campaigns occur during football season. Traditionally, Election Day is the first Tuesday in November, which makes the union of football season and campaign season a natural one.
In Alabama, however, politics and likely election results are largely already settled by the time football season even starts. Being a one-party state, all the so-called action happens in the state’s primaries and by the time the fall campaigns start, the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
For this Sept. 26 special election Republican primary runoff, I would expect Strange and Moore to start becoming very familiar with football in Alabama. That’s not just Auburn and Alabama, but all the other colleges — South Alabama, UAB, Troy, Jacksonville State, Samford, etc. Also, it might behoove these candidates to hit a few high school games along the way.
On Saturday, both Moore and Strange stayed within the confines of the state to attend Auburn’s home-opener against Georgia Southern. Both candidates will likely do the same for Alabama’s home-opener this week against Fresno State in Tuscaloosa.
It’s not that by hitting an Auburn or Alabama game to campaign will better a candidate’s standing in Lee or Tuscaloosa counties. People drive from all over the state to attend college football games. Given the circumstances of a hotly contested race, it’s only logical to have an outpost outside the stadium, maybe offering free bottled water or plastic cups.
All of this is obviously for show. What would happen if we drilled down a little further in search of what candidates think of college football?
Outsiders like to joke that you have to declare your allegiance to Alabama or Auburn when you cross the state line. (That’s not true, obviously. It’s just a hokey myth.) For the sake of character, wouldn’t we like to know where a candidate’s loyalties lie when it comes to college football?
To say that you are for both teams seems like a cop-out. Sure, some people can be for both teams, I suppose. But on Iron Bowl day, you can’t be for both Alabama and Auburn. You have to pick one.
When politicians are asked “Auburn or Alabama?” they chuckle and decline to comment.
Yes, this a trivial subject in the grand scheme of the universe. But 80,000-plus seat stadiums aren’t filling themselves up by accident. The whole Iron Bowl rivalry is as Alabama as any politician who has held statewide office.
Wouldn’t it be a true test of character to force a candidate to declare “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle?”
Two years ago while running for president, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) was cornered about his state’s college rivalry between Florida State University and the University of Florida. Rubio, a UF alum, didn’t shy away from taking a dig at FSU.
“Look, I don’t have anything against Florida State,” Rubio said in a radio interview. “I think there has to be a school where people that can’t get into Florida can go to college, and so that’s why we have Florida State.”
That comment upset a lot of people in Tallahassee, obviously. But when it came time to vote, it did not matter. Rubio was trounced by Trump in the presidential primary six months later. He lost Leon County (home to FSU) by .9 percent of the vote. However, he lost Alachua County (home to UF) by nearly 10 points.
Rubio went on to run for re-election in the U.S. Senate and seven months later defeated then-Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Florida) in the 2016 general election.
Florida voters might have preferred a Trump presidency, but they didn’t seem to be bothered by a Rubio U.S. Senate candidate who was steadfast in his collegiate allegiances.
It is probably a little different in Alabama. But if you cannot commit to the Crimson Tide or the Tigers, how are you going to commit to a tough vote? Voters are expected to believe you will hold strong and be resolute and unwavering on a tough vote. How can voters expect their candidates to hold strong to their policy positions when they are too fearful to take a position on “War Eagle” or “Roll Tide”?
You can root for both 364 days of the year (although that still seems like a cop-out), but on the 365th day candidates and political leaders should have to pick one. If you, as a politician, can’t handle that task, then the odds are you’ll sell out your voters down the road.