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If the NCAA ran our presidential elections

Like any college football fan, my disgust for the Bowl Championship Series system, which decides the sport's mythical national champion, knows no bounds. And since its December (translation: slow news season), what better time to combine two of my passions in life -- politics and college football -- into one column?   The National Journal's Chuck Todd reports.
/ Source: National Journal

Like any college football fan, my disgust for the Bowl Championship Series system, which decides the sport's mythical national champion, knows no bounds. And since its December (translation: slow news season), what better time to combine two of my passions in life -- politics and college football -- into one column?

Fortunately, unlike college football, the parties' nomination processes still include some playoffs (the primaries) but the way the field winnows prior to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries too closely resembles the backward methods the BCS uses when anointing two teams to play for the national title. So let's identify some of the same factors to narrow down the presidential field that sports writers and football coaches use to determine the national title contenders.

Strength of schedule: In the college football world, this factor is applied sporadically, depending upon pedigree. If the team is new, like Rutgers (or, say, California GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter), then suddenly schedule strength becomes the ultimate judgment about its place in college football. But if it's Notre Dame (or Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.), the lack of tough opponents (Army or Obama's '04 Senate opponent, Republican Alan Keyes) just isn't given the same weight by the powers that be.

Now, let's look at the candidates in the race just by the strength of schedule (i.e., the races they've run in the past and whether that prepares them for the tough task of the general). Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) has run many more races (or played a lot more games) than his would-be opponents, but only one of those races was tough (the 2000 GOP primary, where he fell to then-Texas Gov. George Bush). New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) has helped coach a slew of tough campaigns but only participated in one that was against second-tier competition. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) has faced the toughest press corps in the country, but he's only run against second-tier candidates (or teams). Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) has only won one race ever. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards' (D) lone campaign victory was against an incumbent in a supposedly tough year for Democrats. Obama has lost a race (Bobby Rush) that historians will scratch their heads about if he ever does become president. Ironically, on the schedule (or previous campaign front), it's the second-tier candidates who have faced the tougher challenges, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.; Govs. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., and Bill Richardson, D-N.M.; and Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del., Sam Brownback, R-Kan., John Kerry, D-Mass., Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind.

So who gets the top spots for schedule strength? Winning over a period of time should count for something (and losing only to a future president should, too), which means McCain gets the top slot on the GOP side. Gingrich comes in a close second since he built his program -- or career -- from nothing. On the Democratic side, Kerry and Bayh deserve the Nos. 1 and 2 slots, respectively, for facing the toughest competition over the longest period of time.

Media polls: Just like in college football, early polling on the presidential race is, more than anything, a popularity contest. And just like college football, early stumbles don't cost front-runners as much as they do lower ranked teams, or candidates. Consequently, media polls show that the two front-runners on both sides are Clinton and Obama for the Democrats and Giuliani and McCain for the Republicans. Clinton's lead on the Democratic side is much clearer in the polls than Giuliani's, which seems to fluctuate.

Computer rankings: The equivalent of the "computer rankings" for the purpose of this exercise is the combination of the rating systems based on various intangible factors used by news organizations like ours, National Journal's (via the Insiders' poll),'s (with Chris Cillizza) and ABC News' "The Note." Although all four outlets haven't dished out their White House rankings in some time, the consensus is that Clinton and McCain are the institutional front-runners, and Romney and Edwards fill the second slots. Of late, Obama's surge is likely to be shown in these rankings and will slowly chip away at Edwards' perceived lead in the anti-Clinton Democratic sweepstakes.

Recruiting: It's amazing how many top-tier college football programs get the benefit of the doubt in preseason polls simply because of how many four- or five-star recruits they sign. Well, the equivalent of this phenomenon in the presidential primaries is the signing of key state strategists (from Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, etc.) or the securing of influential endorsers (be it key interest groups on either side of the aisle or influential officeholders).

On this front, the Republican candidates are much further ahead than are Democrats. Already, it seems the field of key state-based strategists is shrinking by the day for the Republicans, now that McCain and Romney seem to be splitting the four- and five-star talent. In fact, one of the reasons many folks like us doubt Giuliani's ability to pull off a campaign is that too many important players in states like Iowa, South Carolina and Michigan have already signed letters of intent with the two big programs: McCain and Romney. Of course, there's a reason I used the phrase "letter of intent" -- they can easily be broken. McCain gets the early nod on recruiting, but Romney's got an impressive class of recruits. On the Democratic side, none of the big three -- Clinton, Obama or Edwards -- have cornered the market on top talent. There's at least one five-star strategist or endorser with just about every major first- and second-tier Democrat.

Historical stature/pedigree: Ever wondered why it is so hard for the Rutgers, Boise State and Utah programs to break through and put themselves in a position to play for a national title? It's because these programs have either bad history (Rutgers) or no history (Boise State and Utah). And although the BCS has devised a system that at least allows them to be seen on national TV sometime around New Year's, there's little chance they'll ever be allowed to play in the big game.

Small-state governors and members of the House comprise the presidential political equivalent. Though potential national political players, they rarely are able to play with the big stars without a series of lucky breaks (see former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) or West Virginia, circa 1988). And to make matters even tougher, if a surprising candidate or team does crash the party, they have to be near perfect in order to stay in the top tier. A one-loss Louisville team doesn't get near the same love as a two-loss Notre Dame team.

So if pedigree is what matters most, the candidates in each party scoring the highest in this category would be Clinton and McCain. Being the spouse of a former president or the runner-up in a previous race allows each of them to survive stumbles. Both Clinton and McCain could lose a primary or two (or lose a debate or two) and be given the chance to come back. The same can't be said for a Romney, Obama or even an Edwards.

Number of losses: In the BCS system, losing just one regular-season game can knock a team down a notch. While there's no equivalent for the preseason of presidential politics, I thought I'd include the category simply because I'm a believer that experiencing a losing campaign, just once, matters in growing the thick skin needed to be president. For our purposes, having a loss tells us something positive about a candidate. Take a look at every major-party nominee in the modern era of politics (since TV) -- just about every national candidate experienced defeat in some election.

Candidates learn a lot from losing. So on this score, the candidates who have seen the abyss and are consequently best prepared to survive a political near-death experience are McCain for the Republicans (though most of his top-tier opponents have also lost campaigns in their past) and Biden for the Democrats. McCain's loss was on one of the biggest stages (the 2000 Republican primary). Biden's '88 presidential campaign debacle was so potentially humiliating that it's possible nothing will faze him 20 years later.

Conference strength: Obviously, the BCS system rewards the conferences with the greatest tradition, and recently, the ones who host conference championship games. The presidential equivalent of this is geographic electoral strength, which is electability in the general. For the Republicans, either McCain or Giuliani are seen as the most electable, with McCain getting the edge since he seems to poll so well with conservative Democrats. In addition, McCain hails from one of the new geographic battlegrounds of the political landscape: the West. On the Democratic side, the "electable" tag seems to fit well with all of the red-state guys, including Bayh, Vilsack and Edwards. For now, the nod has to go to Edwards, since polls have shown him polling best (at least pre-Obamamania) in national general election matchups.

Television appeal: This is where bias really kicks in with the BCS. How much of a penalty did Michigan pay in the two human polls because they had already faced Ohio State? How many voting members in those polls ranked Florida ahead of Michigan simply because they didn't want to watch a rematch? Using this logic in the presidential primaries, there is little chance that the media is seriously going to want to see anyone other than Clinton or Obama be the Democratic nominee (better story, or better ratings). And for the Republicans, McCain, and to a lesser extent, Giuliani, score well. But it's likely that if Clinton is the Democratic nominee, the media wouldn't want a "regional" national title matchup with Giuliani and would instead find the appeal of McCain more "national."

The way this country determines its viable presidential candidates is almost as silly as the BCS system. If the presidential system were more open, like the NCAA college basketball tournament, then any old George Mason, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) or Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) could have a legitimate shot at crashing the party. But alas, it's not. Maybe some day -- and maybe the Internet -- is going to allow more Masons (or Deans) to get through. But for now, the powers that be have a stranglehold that's not dissimilar to what the major conferences have done with college football. It's good for the media, but is it good for the voters?