This year, for the third time in history, the Super Bowl and Iowa’s opening nominating contest are set for back-to-back nights.
It’s been more than 40 years since the NFL’s championship game has been the pre-show for the primary election season.
President Trump and Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York City mayor and late entry into the Democratic White House race who’s focusing on the 14 Super Tuesday states, revealed this week they’re both paying upward of $10 million for ads to air during the Super Bowl on Feb. 2. But it remains to be seen how the 2020 sporting spectacle, broadcast by Fox from Miami Gardens, Florida, will affect Democratic candidates vying for their party’s presidential nomination on Feb. 3.
The first time the Super Bowl directly preceded the Iowa caucuses was in 1976, when the Pittsburgh Steelers played the Dallas Cowboys “just before Jimmy Carter ‘won’ over Birch Bayh,” according to historian David Pietrusza, managing editor of Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the NFL and co-editor of Total Super Bowl.
“Though Carter didn’t really win, because an uncommitted Democratic slate got far more votes. On the GOP side, two football types, Gerald Ford, a star for the University of Michigan Wolverines, and challenger Ronald Reagan, who played for Eureka College and portrayed Notre Dame’s George Gipp on screen, faced off. Ford just nipped Reagan,” he told the Washington Examiner in an email.
Then, four years later, during the 1980 election cycle, the Steelers played the Los Angeles Rams “on the day before Carter took the air out of Ted Kennedy’s failed challenge, and Reagan fell short again, this time running just behind George H. W. Bush.”
“Bush later became the only current or past president to participate in a Super Bowl coin toss,” Pietrusza said.
“About the only time I can recall a sporting event impacting an election was in 1969, when New York City was falling apart and liberal Republican Mayor John Lindsey faced tough sledding for reelection,” Pietrusza said. “The upstart Mets World Series victory over the favored Baltimore Orioles that October put New Yorkers in such a good mood they forgot how terrible everything else was and reelected Lindsey.”
For University of Pennsylvania’s Brian Rosenwald, another historical comparison could be made with “the famous Bill and Hillary Clinton 60 Minutes interview, which addressed Gennifer Flowers’s allegations against Bill.” That special, covering the singer, model, and actress’s claims she had an affair with the president, aired after the Super Bowl broadcast on CBS in 1992.
While Iowa Democratic strategist Jeff Link predicted there would only be political repercussions if the nearby Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, or Kansas City Chiefs made the 54th Super Bowl, Pietrusza said the game presented an opportunity for the 2020 campaigns to target women not interested in tuning in.
“And, that might end up providing a slight edge to female candidates like Elizabeth Warren or Iowa neighbor Amy Klobuchar. In Iowa, sometimes the slightest edge can make a difference,” he said, referring to the senators from Massachusetts and Minnesota, respectively.
West Des Moines Democrats chairman Victor Dutchuk, however, warned the campaigns to tread carefully in case they annoyed fans gripped to their TVs during the Super Bowl.
“Typically the night before the caucus, including the day of the caucus, there is a massive increase in phone-banking and door-knocking. The Super Bowl the night before should, in my opinion, limit their ability to do that because what you don’t want to do is antagonize any of the caucusgoers. The same thing happens on Saturdays during the college football season,” he said.
Instead, Dutchuk encouraged the campaigns to, for example, host their own Super Bowl watch parties. Ads were a balancing act because there was a perception that Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, the other billionaire contender hoping to be the Democratic Party’s next standard-bearer, were buying their influence among voters, he added.
“It’s a prime opportunity for those campaigns that can buy airtime to do so. And that airtime needs to be focused on the issues that are important to Iowans, because that’s going to be their last opportunity to sway caucusgoers one way or the other. There are a lot of undecideds out there,” Dutchuk told the Washington Examiner.