I was listening to the radio a couple of days ago when someone mentioned March Madness, the 2008 NCAA college basketball tournament. Since the games had not yet started and nearly all the experts had evidently weighed in, the topic at hand was who the major presidential candidates thought would take home the championship trophy. Hillary Clinton answered that she would have to defer to her husband, a huge college hoops fan. I don't recall John McCain's response, but I'm sure he said, "The United States will win, of course, though the tournament may have to go on for fifty rounds and last at least until September." (OK, I made that one up.)
The most interesting prediction, however, came from Barack Obama, who picked the University of North Carolina. My first reaction was surprise that Obama, of all people, would be such a chalk player (for you non-gamblers, that's someone who only bets on favorites). Carolina, after all, remains the Vegas choice to cut down the nets on April 7, and is one of four number one seeds going into this past weekend. Surely, I thought, the Candidate of Change would have yet one more surprise in store for us. But he did not.
There may be no candidate in history as qualified to handicap college basketball. Not only is Senator Obama a major roundball devotee, but his brother-in-law coaches the Brown University varsity. Though Brown did not win the Ivy League, and will thus watch the games on television along with the rest of us, there's nothing like having a well informed insider to consult when filling out one's brackets.
But then my cynical side took hold and I started thinking further about Obama's selection. Sports allegiances and sports predictions have often been manipulated for electoral gain in recent history. Rudy Giuliani, die-hard Yankees fan, went to New England last year and intimated that he hoped that the Boston Red Sox, the Yanks' most bitter rival, would defeat the Colorado Rockies and win the World Series. Hillary Clinton, lifelong devotee of the Chicago Cubs, found herself donning a Yankees cap when she decided, eight years ago, that she'd like to be a senator from New York State. Could Obama be engaging in this same sort of pandering?
Well, yes, of course he could. Everyone may be focusing right now on the upcoming Pennsylvania primary, but that may not be the most important race still coming down Interstate 95. Rather, Barack Obama's real firewall state is now (drum roll, please) North Carolina. Senator Clinton currently enjoys a double-digit lead in Pennsylvania, and a victory there would strengthen her claim that she is the real champion of the states that Democrats actually need to win to defeat John McCain in November. Indeed, a big enough victory in the Keystone State could inch her closer to an outright lead in the overall popular vote, a result that would put Obama in the embarrassing position of playing George W. Bush to her Al Gore (real voters be damned: only delegates count!).
Should Clinton win Pennsylvania decisively—and if she doesn't, it's all over—the next battle would come two weeks later with primary elections in Indiana and North Carolina. Indiana may border Obama's home base of Illinois, but the link is only geographical. Other than a few Hoosiers in the far northwest corner of the state, Indianans do not get their news from Chicago and even their Democrats are generally more conservative than those from the Land of Lincoln. Indiana may be a good state for Hillary Clinton, but even if she loses there, the media will still probably blame—incorrectly, in my view—an Illinois spillover.
North Carolina, on the other hand, seems tailor made for Barack Obama. The senator has yet to lose an open primary in a southern state, indeed winning most by a formidable margin. Clinton's southern victories have been limited to the closed primary in Tennessee, Bill's home state of Arkansas, and the phantom vote in Florida. By all rights, then, Obama should sweep to victory in the Tar Heel State.
His lead, however, is only about five points at the moment. Obama's campaign continues to battle back from the controversy over the words of his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Initial reactions to the senator's speech on race and religion seemed highly positive, but the issue has not receded. Republicans, and even some Democrats, continue to ask why Obama remained in a church where supposedly anti-American rhetoric was being delivered on a fairly regular basis. Nationally, Obama has dropped noticeably in the head-to-head polls against Senator McCain, having seen his support dip among the all important independent voters.
Should the Illinois senator lose badly in Pennsylvania next month, May 6 could become a make or break day for him. The Super Delegates do not want to upend the will of the voters, such as it is (the caucuses should still, in my view, be largely discounted). But they also do not want the 2008 presidential election to be a contest between God Bless America and "God Damn America". That this is enormously unfair to Barack Obama, an unabashed patriot, is beside the point. The point is to defeat John McCain and put the ruinous Bush years permanently behind us.
In any given NCAA tournament, about sixteen teams have a real shot at the national championship. The other three number one seeds represent states (California, Kansas, and Tennessee) whose primaries and caucuses have already passed. Of the remaining twelve teams, Obama could have predicted victory for the University of Pittsburgh (a number four seed), which might have pleased the folks in Western Pennsylvania. But instead he went with his firewall, North Carolina, and its flagship university. That meant picking against Duke, of course, another entry from the same state, but most Dukies come from elsewhere, particular Hillary's northeastern home base.
And sure, maybe Barack Obama simply believes that UNC is the best team in the tournament. A lot of other people do as well, including the NCAA selection committee. Still, whether Obama's choice was a matter of electioneering or expertise (or both), it does point out just how critical the upcoming North Carolina primary may be to a campaign that is, even while enjoying frontrunner status, taking on more water by the minute. To employ the parlance of the tournament, the Tar Heel Primary may effectively prove to be a single-elimination contest.