Will there be a Big Ten Bounce?: Trump signals to Rust Belt voters he pushed conference to start football season

As other conferences started their seasons, flyover country conference was losing out on precious TV revenue

John T. Bennett
Washington Bureau Chief
Wednesday 16 September 2020 16:25
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Donald Trump, narrowing Joe Biden’s lead in several flyover battleground states, was handed a potential electoral boost on Wednesday when the Big Ten Conference presidents voted to play fall football after all – and he says a little presidential pressure helped trigger the reversal. 

The conference, which includes heavyweight blue-blood programs like Ohio State and Michigan, had decided to put off their usual autumn schedule amid worries playing the contact sport would be unsafe for players, coaches and support staff during the coronavirus pandemic. The Pac-12 followed the flyover country league, joining the Mid-American Conference (MAC) and Mountain West Conference as Football Bowl Subdivision leagues sitting out a fall slate, but hoping to play in the spring. But other conferences – like the SEC, ACC, AAC and Sun Belt – already have started playing game and have reported no major Covid-related problems, meaning the Big Ten is losing out on the big-money television revenue that keeps college athletics departments alive.

For Mr Trump, the conference’s decision offered him just what he needed in Rust Belt states as his poll numbers there were dipping amid ongoing racial tensions and protests, and what a majority of voters saw as his subpar handling of the coronavirus pandemic: A new powerful foe he could say he was fighting on behalf of average Americans (read: wealthy conference presidents and chancellors).

The president wasted no time on Wednesday morning in taking credit for the Big Ten’s about-face, firing off a self-congratulatory tweet just minutes after news broke of its intention to begin play on 28 October.

“Great News: BIG TEN FOOTBALL IS BACK. All teams to participate. Thank you to the players, coaches, parents, and all school representatives,” the president wrote after the conference presidents and chancellors voted unanimously to play.

“Have a FANTASTIC SEASON!” he added. “It is my great honor to have helped!!!

That followed comments about the conference officials’ planned vote Tuesday night during an ABC News town hall in Philadelphia.

“We're going to get back. We're not going to have studios like this, where you have all of this empty space in between,” Mr Trump said of the venue at the National Constitution Center, which featured undecided voters socially distanced in a mostly empty auditorium and him sitting feet from moderator George Stephanopoulos on a large stage.

“I want to see people, and you want to see people,” Mr Trump said. “I want to see football games. I'm pushing very hard for Big Ten, I want to see Big Ten open, let the football games, let them play sports.”

His ad-libbed remark about the Big Ten came during an exchange when the ABC News anchor pressed the president on his previous, and so far false, comments that the coronavirus will eventually just “disappear.”

“It is going to disappear. It's going to disappear, I still say it,” Mr Trump insisted in response.

Rust Belt duel

Whether or not the conference started its season before Election Day could make a difference in who is president come late January. That’s because the Big Ten has large and rabid fanbases in several key battleground states where some Top 25 teams play each fall.

Ohio. Michigan. Pennsylvania. Minnesota. Wisconsin. Iowa.

All are in play, according to multiple polls. Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin – along with Florida – essentially will decide who wins on 3 November, according to analysts and pollsters.

It’s no surprise, then, that Mr Trump chose the Keystone State – home of the Big Ten’s Penn State Nittany Lions – his first election homestretch town hall event. It has 20 Electoral college votes, and he won it narrowly in 2016, by less than 1 percentage point. Mr Biden leads there, but by around 4 points, according to an average of several polls conducted by RealClearPolitics – just at the margin of error of most professional surveys.

Nathaniel Rakich of FiveThirtyEight wrote this week that Pennsylvania “looks like the single most important state of the 2020 election.”

“Pennsylvania is by far the likeliest state to provide either President Trump or Joe Biden with the decisive vote in the Electoral College: It has a 31 percent chance of being the tipping-point state,” he wrote, “In fact, Pennsylvania is so important that our model gives Trump an 84 per cent chance of winning the presidency if he carries the state — and it gives Biden a 96 per cent chance of winning if Pennsylvania goes blue.”

Both candidates seem keenly aware.

Mr Biden, who has spent almost the entire coronavirus outbreak at his nearby Wilmington, Delaware home has used several Keystone cities to deliver remarks. Mr Trump knows, too.

As he headed back to Washington with his cheesesteaks, the president had a message for the Keystone State: “Great to be back in Philadelphia. Thank you Pennsylvania, see you again soon!” With the race likely to tighten in its final seven weeks, it is now just a question of how many times can his campaign get him back to the Keystone State.

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