President Donald Trump got his football wish: The Big 10 college football conference will begin playing in late October. Trump had been pushing for the league, which has schools in Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin among others, to start playing and had talks with the league. The league had previously announced a suspension of its schedule.
It’s very much unclear whether the decision will actually help Trump. What is clear is that he needs the help in the swing states where the Big 10 is most prominent.
Trump obviously saw a political opportunity with concern to the Big 10. There’s a reason he focused most of his attention on the Big 10 suspending play, as opposed to the many other conferences that did. Most of those other conferences aren’t based in swing states.
Trump wasn’t alone. Former Vice President Joe Biden made ads showing empty college football stadiums with the blame landing at Trump’s feet.
Both nominees probably know that college football is adored in the Midwest. As I pointed out last month, 51% of Midwesterners consider themselves college football fans. That’s about tied with the South for the highest percentage of fans in the country. Trump also probably knows that Republicans really do like college football, according to a study of Google search patterns from 2017. That is, it’s a good base play.
Moreover, Trump has been pushing for a return to normal activities, and few things say normal in the Midwest quite like college football.
Still, you might think that if the push for the Big 10 to return – something Trump has done for weeks – was such a great political play, you would start to see his poll numbers move in the Midwest.
Perhaps that will be the case eventually – the news of the Big 10 returning just broke on Wednesday morning – but it’s not now.
The polling over the last few weeks has been mediocre to downright dire for Trump in a number of these states.
There hasn’t been a lot of high-quality polling out of Michigan, though the average continues to put Trump behind Biden by around 7 to 8 points.
Trump had been hoping to put Minnesota in play. Instead, polls released by ABC News/Washington Post, CBS News/YouGov and the New York Times/Siena College have him trailing by anywhere from 9 to 16 points.
Trump also is still facing a deficit in Pennsylvania. Among likely voters in recent polls from NBC News/Marist College, Monmouth University and Quinnipiac University, Trump’s down an average of 6 points.
And in Wisconsin, Trump seems to be trailing by the same margins that he always has. A CNN/SSRS poll released on Tuesday had him down 10 points. An ABC News/Washington Post poll had his deficit at 6 points. The New York Times/Siena College poll put Trump behind by 5 points.
So while Trump has made football a part of his political playbook, part of his problem might just be that although folks like college football, they may not like the idea of it right now.
A recent Grinnell College/Selzer & Co. poll found that 53% of Midwestern residents said it would be mostly unsafe for students to attend college. Only 41% said it would be safe. That matches a Quinnipiac poll from July showing a majority of Midwestern voters (51%) thought opening colleges would be unsafe. You can’t reopen college football without reopening colleges to at least some degree.
And as I noted a few weeks ago, most fans were in favor of a delay to the college football season. Perhaps, the delay from having football start in late October instead of around Labor Day will have been enough for them, though it’s been a few weeks since a lot of this polling came out.
And again, maybe the actual resumption of college football play will shift the political math here. Voters may not know how much they missed college football until they see it again.
But in a race where few things have shifted, it doesn’t seem like the best bet.