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Iowa

Why Jeb Bush's Bracket Has More Madness Than Obama's

For the seventh year , President Obama filled out his NCAA Tournament bracket today with ESPN’s Andy Katz. (Katz, who is one of Obama’s regular visitors for pick-up games at the White House, always makes sure to return the favor.) 

Three years ago, typically, Mitt Romney wasn’t sporting enough to join the NCAA Bracket fun, but generally, politicians know the value of spending five minutes filling in names of schools with players you’ve never heard of. It’s always nice to briefly engage the country by participating in the same ritual they all are: It reminds them you used to be human. You can criticize a politician for being a phony sports fan by filling out a bracket when they don’t actually watch a lot of college basketball … but honestly, how much college basketball do watch, pal? Yet I bet you found a way to fill out a bracket regardless.

There’s always a temptation to try to find some sort of strategy in politicians’ brackets: The Times did this by arching an eyebrow at Jeb Bush’s picks of several Iowa schools to advance. This is, in fact, an excellent year for Iowa collegiate basketball—Northern Iowa and Iowa State are legitimate Final Four contenders—but if there is a caucusgoer who will vote for a candidate because, 10 months ago, they picked their team to advance in a tournament that has long been decided, I’m not sure they count as “statistically significant.” It’s more fun to note the basketball personalities the brackets show. How do certain picks differ from the consensus? What are the risks? How chalk is the bracket? Presidents are deciders, so how they fill in their brackets can serve as Rorshachs—just for sport, of course.

Here’s a look at the three most interesting choices from Barack Obama’s and Jeb Bush’s brackets. We’re still waiting on brackets from Hillary Clinton, Scott Walker, Chris Christie and the rest of them.

Professor Obama's Picks

1. He has the exact opposite 12-5 picks from everyone else. The hot upsets in the 5-12 game—always a popular upset pick game—generally have been Stephen F. Austin over Utah and Wofford over Arkansas. Obama picked the other two: Wyoming over Northern Iowa and Buffalo over West Virginia. (I have that Buffalo one myself). These are studious, slightly wonky picks—no surprise.

2. He has already missed a game, but it won’t cost him. He picked BYU not only to beat Mississippi last night—they didn’t—but also for the Cougars to beat Xavier tomorrow. He did the same thing with tonight’s Boise State-Dayton game; he picked Dayton to beat Providence on Friday, but even if Boise State beats Dayton tonight and then beats Providence, he’ll still get credit. (The First Four games are so annoying.) But Obama has always been better as a finisher.

3. It’s mostly chalk. He picked three No. 1 seeds to advance to the Final Four, as conservative and conventional a pick as you can make. The thing about this strategy, of course, is that it generally works: It’s more fun to pick surprising teams to make the Final Four, but it’s also the best way to lose your pool. Obama knows this and chooses accordingly. He’s a cautious rationalist, in bracketology as well as free-world-leadership. 

Jeb's Risky Ways

1. He’s completely overturned expectations with his top choice. Virginia is quite the daring pick—not only to have them reach the Final Four, but in fact to win the whole thing. (Picking anyone other than undefeated Kentucky is picking an upset.) Virginia hasn’t quite been the same on offense since losing Justin Anderson in February, but apparently Jeb is counting on his healthy return.

2. And Baylor as a final four pick, while not as momentous, is possibly odder. Another surprise Final Four team, one that wasn’t even expected to be in the tournament at the beginning of the season. Baylor is perhaps best known for dressing like highlighters in tournament games.

3. It is also mostly chalk. Bush wins points, I suppose, for being daring with Virginia and Baylor, but otherwise, he’s even more conservative with his picks than Obama. The lowest seed he has advancing out of the first round is No. 11 Texas over No. 6 Butler, which only barely counts as an upset. All told: The Virginia pick makes this look like a new kind of ballot … but it’s the same thing in new packaging. Bush should be hoping too many of the good voters of New Hampshire don’t make this connection.