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David Hill: Lessons from football

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As we approach the apex of the current football season, with Monday night’s BCS championship in the record book and the Super Bowl looming ahead, Americans are in a football frenzy. Politics should be jealous. 

Fewer and fewer Americans care much about politics. The combined audiences of all the TV channels covering mostly politics would pale in comparison to the blockbuster audiences of the ESPN channels. 

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People in bars and coffee shops, in neighborhood parks and in grocery store produce sections and barber shops talk about football for months and months during the fall and winter seasons every year, while politics is discussed — at most — for a few months every few years by most people. 

Football wins, too, when it comes to the outward public expression of passion. 

Politics has become a sterile made-for-TV experience, devoid in America of any rallies or other live events, except in the last few weeks of presidential campaigning. 

Football, on the other hand, starts out every weekend in tens of thousands of packed high school stadiums across America on Friday nights, followed by Saturdays on campuses everywhere, before the action moves to the fields of pro football on Sundays. 

And I’m not even counting all the Pop Warner games for kids or other amateur touch football leagues that parks and recreation departments sponsor most everywhere. 

Americans are in and around the game when it comes to football. But politics is just for political nerds in Washington, D.C., and a few state capitals, like chess is for geeks. New live politics, like the mass rallies they have in Latin American and former Eastern Bloc nations, might help stimulate more interest.

Politics is, first and foremost, simply less entertaining than football. Sometimes it seems as if politics is similar to football, but before the forward pass was invented. Passing, hurry-up offenses, trick plays and on-side kicks are things that draw people to the game and, more importantly, to debating among themselves about the game. Politics, as least as it’s usually practiced and typically reported, just doesn’t have enough interesting content for most Americans’ tastes. 

Frankly, the styles of Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and Rush Limbaugh — whether you like them and their politics or not — are more interesting and entertaining than most political drivel on TV. Yet because this quartet doesn’t really have that big of an audience, even by news reporting standards, few people are wowed by their show-biz brand of politics. 

Most standard competitive political reportage, meanwhile, possesses the Q- or X-factor of an ingredients label on a chicken pot pie. Football, though, has regularly taken steps to become even more entertaining, more culturally relevant, livelier and focused on more interesting and entertaining personalities.

Speaking of personalities, politics needs an ever-refreshing youth movement, like football freshmen at the high school and college levels have and that the pros get with the annual draft of new talent. Unless we see a broader imposition of term limits, politics just keeps getting older, both literally and figuratively. The emergence of new fresh faces every fall could help politics attract new fans and dialogues.

Politics could also generate more talk and interest if it embraced statistics in the same fashion as sports. I would love to see a wider use of stats such as a lawmaker’s completion percentage when it comes to passing legislation introduced. Similarly, I’d like to see regularly and prominently shared rankings of congressmen and congresswomen based on numbers like the percentage of weekends they return home, their net worth, the mean number of days to respond to constituent mail or the turnover ratio of employees. 

Sure, these sorts of stats occasionally are put together, but never regularly over time and by some unbiased sources. But if they were published, people would talk, and more talk about politics might help get it to football’s level.

Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.