Your Senator Filled Out An NCAA Bracket – You’ll Never Guess Who They Picked

By Brian Baker
Medill Reports

Shortly before the NCAA Tournament tipped off last Thursday, Virginia U.S. Senator Mark Warner sent a tweet that included a picture of his bracket. “Just filled out my #MarchMadness bracket. @UVA’s going all the way,” it read. The University of Virginia did not go all the way.

Millions of Americans participated in the annual ritual of filling out a bracket for the NCAA Tournament last week. By the weekend, many were ripping them up.

On ESPN’s website alone, 17.3 million brackets were submitted. The reasoning behind selections can vary from school mascots to favorite team colors. For politicians, who are increasingly joining in on the bracket fun, the rationale seems clear: pick the school from your home state.

Senator John McCain, from Arizona, picked the University of Arizona. Former President George H.W. Bush, who lives in Texas, picked Texas A&M. Indiana Senator Todd Young picked Purdue University. Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto picked Nevada.

Arizona lost its first-round game to the University at Buffalo. Purdue and Nevada both advanced to the Sweet 16 after defeating Butler University and Cincinnati respectively.

Arguably, the most biased pick of all came from Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen. He selected the University of Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers to upset the top-seeded team in the tournament: Sen. Warner’s Virginia Cavaliers. Van Hollen didn’t just pick UMBC to win their first game. He picked them to win every game.

It was certainly a bold pick. A 16-seed had never defeated a 1-seed in the men’s tournament – until Friday night. UMBC defeated Virginia 74-54 in one of the biggest upsets in tournament history. Entering the game, the statistical website gave Virginia a 97 percent chance of advancing to the second-round.

“I’m so proud of the Retrievers,” Van Hollen said in an email. “Senator Mark Warner might have laughed at me when I picked UMBC to go all the way, but I had to go with heart over head. We’re going all the way!” UMBC lost its second-round game to Kansas State.

Former President Barack Obama announced his NCAA picks each year during his presidency and has continued to do so since leaving office. Known for his love of basketball, the former president’s picks are usually based on which team is favored to win. However, he did correctly predict Loyola-Chicago to upset the University of Miami in the first-round this year which makes sense, Obama is from Chicago.

Jhonmar Castillo, managing partner at Chicago-based political consultant Foremost Strategy, does not think picking the home team is an effective political strategy. “It has everything to do with their base,” he said. Politicians are trying to show voters they’re loyal to the area they represent, according to Castillo. “It matters some places more than others,” he said.

North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis faced one of the most difficult choices when it came to making his picks. Five different schools from his state were in the tournament field. Ultimately, he chose North Carolina to defeat Duke University for the National Championship.

His choice may have been the result of the size difference between the two schools. North Carolina has more than 175,000 alumni living in the state, according to the school’s website. Duke has 32,892 graduates in North Carolina, according to the Duke Alumni Association. That difference can matter in an election.

North Carolina lost its second-round game to Texas A&M which advanced to the Sweet 16 where they’ll face the University of Michigan – the pick of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.

Photo at top: The 2018 NCAA Tournament Bracket. (Brian Baker/MEDILL)