Sen. Barack Obama would never admit it, but he needs the Washington Redskins to lose Monday night to the Pittsburgh Steelers to become president.
Political pundits can talk ad nauseam about his rousing speeches, his massive edge in campaign dollars and his promise of middle-class tax cuts. But none of that matters when, historically, the most accurate predictor of presidential elections is the NFL team representing the District.
It’s called the Redskins Rule, and it has an accuracy rate of either 94 or 100 percent depending on how it’s applied. Every time the Redskins win their final home game before a presidential election, the candidate representing the incumbent party remains in office. Every time they lose, the incumbent party’s candidate loses as well. It’s a predictor that has worked in 16 of 17 presidential elections since the Redskins arrived in Washington. (Some argue the rule is 17-for-17; more on that in a second.)
Obama, an Illinois Democrat, leads Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, in nearly every poll. That suggests the Redskins will lose despite entering the game as two-point favorites.
“There’s a lot of pressure on the Redskins, especially with the way everyone thinks this election is going to go,” said Steve Hirdt, executive vice president of the Elias Sports Bureau, who works on ESPN‘s “Monday Night Football” telecasts.
Hirdt claims to have first come across the rule when in search of a conversation point for a game between the Redskins and Titans before the 2000 election. After thumbing through a team media guide, he found that, starting in 1940, the result of the final home game before the election always foretold the outcome on Election Day. In 1948, the Redskins Rule proved smarter than one famous newspaper headline when a 59-21 win by Washington against the Boston Yanks correctly predicted Democrat Harry Truman’s win against Republican Thomas Dewey.
Is this a coincidence, or is this mesh of politics and sports a product of the supernatural?
“These things are decided by fate and mysticism beyond the comprehension of normal man,” Hirdt said.
References to other dimensions aside, Hirdt said he enjoys touting the Redskins Rule because the team is not required to support the same political party each election. It is a politically unbiased phenomenon that has stood the test of time, though it is worth pointing out the rule was tweaked after the controversial election of 2000, when George W. Bush topped Al Gore despite losing the popular vote.
In 2004, the Redskins lost to the Packers 28-14, suggesting Bush should have lost to John Kerry. Hirdt changed the way the rule is applied to have it refer to the previous winner of the popular vote, not the electoral vote.
“Scientists are always studying data and coming up with different conclusions,” Hirdt rationalized. “After 2004, because Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, we tweaked the precision of how the Redskins Rule is applied.”
Is that cheating? Perhaps, but keep in mind that this is a rule that was discovered only during efforts to help fill the airwaves during a football game.
“Monday Night Football” host Mike Tirico said discussion of the Redskins Rule will be weaved into the broadcast but said “it’s one of those things that everybody talks about - but then completely forgets about afterward.”
Tirico, who said he plans to fly from Reagan National Airport to his home state of Michigan to vote Tuesday, said the game should be compelling enough to draw viewers. But he admitted he was one of the first to suggest that ESPN select it because of its proximity to Election Day.
“I said, ‘Guys, we’re going to have a Redskins game on Monday night in D.C. Wouldn’t it be great if we could be in Washington the day before the election?’” he said. “With everybody talking about it, we think that’s the place to be.”
ESPN plans to air interviews with Obama and McCain during its halftime show and will turn to analyst and longtime D.C. resident Tony Kornheiser for the occasional election-related quip. The cable network also will air short features about former NFL players who entered politics and another about the 2004 Illinois Senate race, which nearly pitted Obama against ESPN analyst and former Chicago Bears player and coach Mike Ditka.
“Everyone thought this would be a great thing, and in our conversations with the league, they thought it was a compelling idea,” said Leah LaPlaca, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions. “Thankfully, they were able to make that happen.”