Chris Christie, Marco Rubio and the politics of sports

June 19, 2013

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) is a Dallas Cowboys fan in a New York Giants/Jets world. And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is the guy with the off-the-mark NBA Finals prediction.

Those are both good things for them in the world of politics.

The fact that the two potential presidential contenders are avid sports fans has been on full display this week. And any time pols are knowledgeably talking sports, it's usually nothing but good news for their political brands, because it ups their relatability quotient.

In a discussion Tuesday with students, Christie effortlessly weaved his way through a discussion about Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA, and the NHL. In a memorable exchange, he elaborated on his geographically-unlikely allegiance to the Dallas Cowboys.

"I was a big fan of Roger Staubach who was the quarterback for the Cowboys back then," Christie said. "And the Giants and the Jets pretty much stunk when I was a kid and my father was a Giants fan and I used to remember watching him when I was eight, nine years old and every Sunday he would watch the Giants and yell at the TV set."

Okay, so it doesn't really matter that Christie is a Cowboys fan living in New Jersey. But what his remark illustrates is that he is a major sports fan who grew up a major sports fan.

So is Rubio, the serious NFL fan who is more than a casual follower of his hometown Miami Dolphins. And what about the hometown Heat, who are in the NBA Finals? Appearing on national television Sunday morning, Rubio played part pol and part hoops analyst, doubling down on his prediction the Heat would topple the San Antonio Spurs in six games. (Fast forward to the 9:00 mark below for Rubio's comments.)

For the record, the Spurs spoiled Rubio's pick by winning Sunday night. But again, what matters is that Rubio is in his element talking about sports.

The fact of the matter is that millions of Americans follow sports, to varying degrees. It's a common denominator that can bond even the most liberal voters in New York or California with the most conservative voters in the heartland. It's an icebreaker that allows people (politicians are people too!) to build an instant connection with those they have just met.

Just ask the current president and his predecessor.

President Obama's love of basketball, ESPN, and filling out NCAA tournament brackets has lent him an every-man vibe that has helped counter charges that he is out of touch. And George W. Bush's passion for baseball helped him connect with ordinary Americans.

Being a sports fan is not a prerequisite for succeeding in politics. But fumbling (please excuse our own sports metaphors) discussions about the topic can produce negative consequences. Recall now-Secretary of State John Kerry's 2004 remarks about Green Bay's "Lambert Field" or nonexistent Red Sox slugger "Manny Ortiz." Then there's Mitt Romney's use of the word "sport" instead of "sports," which became late-night comedy fodder in 2012 and fed a narrative he was awkward in conversations about non-political matters.

All of which is to say Christie and Rubio shouldn't have to worry about getting into similar trouble. And in a political universe where personality and personal brand matters, that's a useful thing to have in their back pockets.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Sean Sullivan · June 19, 2013