Part of politics is connecting with your audience. As a politician, you might drop a casual Pokémon Go reference into your stump speech, or play up some pious humility about whether or not you deserve your religious supporters—whatever it takes to let the people know that you speak their language. Sometimes these attempts are cringe inducing, and sometimes they’re convincing, but rarely do they reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the audience. Last week, U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan tried to convince Cruz-ier factions within the Texas delegation to the Republican National Convention that they should support Donald Trump with a Texas college football metaphor. It didn’t work.
Ryan started by telling the crowd that he had two dogs named “Boomer” and “Sooner”—a curious move in front of Texas sports fans—and then tried to explain that though rivalries can be heated when the teams are in direct competition with one another, those divisions heal over by bowl season. In his attempt to explain why people who actively supported Ted Cruz during the primary should now lend their support to Donald Trump, Ryan made it clear that he doesn’t know how football culture in Texas works.
Ryan, whose wife Janna is an Oklahoma native, went on to describe the University of Texas-University of Oklahoma annual meeting in Dallas.
“But when one of the teams advances, to a big bowl game? Or a national championship? Don’t you root for the Aggies if you are a Longhorn?”
The Texas Republican audience then broke out into laughter.
“You don’t?” a perplexed speaker asked, adding that his whole point was “obliterated.”
“Well, let me tell you how we do it where I come from,” he said. “I come from Big Ten country, so we fight like heck against Ohio State or Michigan. And then, when it doesn’t go our way or they make it to the Rose Bowl or they go to the national championship, we root for them because we’re in the same conference.”
“Start thinking that way,” he said in feigned exasperation. “Holy moly. This explains everything right now. Geez.”
Out in Big Ten country, the rivalries might lead to people cheering on their perennial foes against unknown competition, but in Texas, fans insist that “OU Sucks!” no matter who the opponent may be. This is easy information for a person to pick up—seriously, just watch a game—but the fact that Ryan made a big football-related gaffe isn’t surprising. For some reason, politicians who invoke America’s favorite sport often tend to make themselves look kind of foolish.
When Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott were in the midst of their 2014 gubernatorial campaigns, neither candidate came off looking great when football came up. Davis gave a radio interview in which she declared, “I grew up cheering for the Cowboys and I haven’t stopped ever since, and I’ll be cheering for them again this year.” That led Abbott to declare her a flip-flopper, since Davis is on record as a fan of the New England Patriots (she’s a friend of the ownership). Of course, that only invited the question of which team Abbott himself rooted for, and—as a candidate for statewide office—he declared that his favorite team was the Dallas Cowboys. And the Houston Texans. That’s a feat of fandom gymnastics that made his criticism of Davis seem slightly suspect.
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback learned the difficulty in talking football on the campaign trail too. During a run for Republican presidential nominee in 2007, the politician attempted to butter up a crowd at the Wisconsin Republican Party convention—people whose primary reason to live was to watch Brett Favre play on Sundays—by declaring Peyton Manning the “greatest quarterback, maybe, in NFL history.” Naturally, Brownback found himself booed by the crowd, and his attempts to dig himself out of the hole proved futile. He tried to pivot to Green Bay Packers legend Bart Starr, but the crowd wasn’t having it, and Brownback slumped at the podium after apologizing. “I’m not sure how I recover from this,” he told the crowd.
Ryan’s recent gaffe is probably the most unintentionally revealing football-related misstep of the 2016 presidential campaign, but it’s not the tackiest. That award goes to erstwhile Texan and short-lived Republican candidate Carly Fiorina, who—while trying to appeal to voters in advance of the the Iowa caucuses—publicly tweeted her support for the Iowa Hawkeyes over the Stanford Cardinal in the Rose Bowl. That might have been an unremarkable pander similar to Marco Rubio and John Kasich shouting out the New England Patriots before the New Hampshire primary, but for the fact that Fiorina is a Stanford graduate. (She later explained that her tweet was “tongue-in-cheek,” which, judge for yourself.)
Ryan’s gaffe doesn’t tell us much about the guy. It does indicate that he doesn’t understand how passionately Texas football fans not only root for their own teams, but enjoy watching their rivals get crushed. Whether that’s insight into the Texan psyche that explains Ted Cruz’s speech at the convention is a matter for debate, but it also reveals that the safest thing for politicians to do when trying to relate to an audience is recognize that they don’t know as much about football as they think they do.