No Panaceas

Monday, March 29, 2004
Reductio ad absurdum: NFL owners are -- once again -- considering adding two more teams to the playoffs, thus bringing the total 14 out of 32. Here are a couple of supportive quotes:

"I'm for anything that gives my team a better chance to make the playoffs," San Francisco 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said.

"I think two more teams in the playoffs would increase the excitement in those cities," added Miami Dolphins president Eddie Jones.

Why don't we just skip ahead and create a 32 team playoff format? That way there will be excitement in all 32 cities and Erickson doesn't have to worry about losing his job, at least not because he didn't make the playoffs. NFL commissioner Tagliabue's fondest dream seems to be to have an NFL season where all the teams finish the regular season 8-8. Here's a parity design he'll love:

All teams play a 10 game regular season. The regular season provides the necessary data for seeding, but seeding matchups pit the highest seeds against the highest seeds and the lowest seeds against the lowest seeds as seen below.

Round 1
A. 1st seed vs 2d seed
B. 3rd seed vs 4th seed

C. 5th seed vs 6th seed
D. 7th seed vs 8th seed

E. 9th seed vs 10th seed
F. 11th seed vs 12th seed

G. 13th seed vs 14th seed
H. 15th seed vs 16th seed

In the second round the winner of Matchup A faces the winner of Matchup B, and so on. The AFC would have the same setup and the whole thing ends up with a Janet Jackson-free Super Bowl. Why have parity based on last year's results? If you are going to level the playing the field then by golly let's do it for the teams that really need it, the ones who stink this year. Of course this sets up totally perverse incentives where teams actually want to do poorly during the regular season, but so what? Nobody cares about the regular season anyway.

It's not because Pennsylvania is a swing state, Bush goes there so often because he is trying to figure what's so great about the Liberty Bell: Sunday's Washington Post brings us this:

Republicans used to complain that President Bill Clinton used Air Force One as his personal campaign plane, taking many official presidential trips that had no real purpose other than to raise reelection funds or drum up votes.

But President Bush has been on the go even more than his predecessor, according to an analysis by Brookings Institution visiting scholars Kathryn Dunn Tenpas and Anthony Corrado and research intern Emily Charnock.

In his first three years in office, Bush took 416 trips to 46 states, compared with Clinton's 302 trips to 40 states during a similar period. Virginia was Bush's most visited state (not surprising, since presidents often take day trips across the Potomac for public events).

More notable, the scholars found, was the heavy proportion of Bush travel to "swing states" -- those where the vote margin in the 2000 election was within 6 percentage points.

Tenpas and Corrado found that 39 percent of Bush's trips were to swing states, compared with 28 percent for Clinton. Bush, for instance, took 27 trips to Pennsylvania -- more than to any state other than Virginia and California. Next up was Florida, the most swingy state of all last time, with 24 Bush visits. Texas, Bush's home, was fifth, and Missouri, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio and Georgia rounded out the top 10.

Several things. First, I hope the actual study is a little more sophisticated than suggested by this article. Thirty-nine percent of the trips went to swing states, where swing state is defined as those states with a 6 point or less margin. Okay. Here are the 2000 swing states:

Florida, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Iowa, Oregon, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Nevada, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maine, Arkansas, Washington.

That is 16 out 50 states or 32% of the states. In other words, 39% of Bush's trips went to 32% of the states. Perhaps taking Texas and Virginia out of the mix or, better yet, a reasonable multivariate analysis might show something a little more impressive. But the evidence cited in this newspaper article is lame. (I'll see if I can get a copy of the actual research article.)

Despite this data, it is certainly not a new argument -- at least among political scientists, maybe we don't send out enough press releases -- that presidents use travel for political purposes. But Clinton was hardly the first to do this, it goes back to, oh, James Monroe. Why do you think John Kennedy was in Texas in November, 1963? The Republicans during the Clinton years were just good at getting myopic journalists to make something old and routine sound new and scandalous. Every trip a president makes has political and presidential elements to it and those do raise ethical questions since taxpayers are footing the travel and security bill. This travel might include a tendency to go to swing states -- though that's not proven in the above data -- but it also means going to states to raise money -- New York might be a good place -- and to campaign for others.

By the way, it is not just domestic travel. Brace and Hinckley demonstrated a while back that there are some distinct political patterns to the timing of a president's foreign travel.

Four for Four: And just because it never hurts to beat a dead horse a little more: do some simple bracket rearranging and the Final Four could just have easily included Cincinnatti or perhaps even Gonzaga. (Or play the tournament a few hundred times and maybe even "First Seeds" Stanford and Kentucky will get in once or twice.

Now if I were in office pool -- which of course I am not -- but if I were it would turn out that while I am -- or would be -- the only person to get all final four teams correct, I will still lose the pool because I did (or would do, if I were in a pool) rather poorly at predicting the second round. Go figure.