That taxes, the national debt, or health care reform have been central issues in this presidential campaign is hardly surprising.  But the same can’t be said for the slogan “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose,” the mantra of fictional football coach Eric Taylor of Friday Night Lights fame.  With Governor Romney using the show’s trademark phrase, with an actress from the show likening the Governor to the show’s unethical and overbearing football father Joe McCoy, with the original book’s author endorsing Romney, and with the TV show’s creator asking the Governor to stop using the phrase, it’s time to look a little more deeply into the politics of “Friday Night Lights.”  My ultimate goal: to learn the politics of the inscrutable Eric Taylor.  But in keeping with a good football show, let me not give away the ending.

For those unfamiliar with the show or the backstory, a paragraph won’t cut it, but I’ll try.  In 1990, journalist Buzz Bissinger published a non-fiction book about his year with the Permian Panthers, a high school football team from Odessa, Texas which had been a perpetual contender for state championships.  Peter Berg then created a five-season TV drama using material from the book along with his own creative license.  It aired from 2006 to 2011, and renamed Odessa “Dillon.”  And since Bissinger’s non-fiction narrative makes it clear that truth can be stranger than fiction**—I’m thinking about the involvement of Texas’ top education official in deciding on a high school player’s grade, and hence his playoff eligibility—Berg’s show is able to be fully fictional and yet stay reasonably close to real-world events.  Although about high school football teams, the show centers as much on Coach Taylor and the guidance counselor and high school principal who is also his wife (Tami) as on the players themselves.  There are spoilers below, but I assume the set of people who are still reading this and aren’t familiar with the show is approaching zero anyhow.

First, let’s start by looking at the geographic distribution of Google searches for “Matt Saracen,” under the assumption that there aren’t too many other reasons to Google that particular name.  Saracen is Eric Taylor’s second and most earnest quarterback during the show, a teenager who has been raised primarily by his grandmother and whose father served in Iraq.  The Google searches suggest that Friday Night Lights plays well in places like Romney’s home state of Massachusetts, but also in Obama’s home state of Illinois, in New York, in Texas, and in other places with large, college-educated populations (in absolute terms).

But what really interests me is the source of the back-and-forth between various commentators: who would the various characters in the show be likely to vote for, or who might they have backed in 2008?  So with the help of the 3,309 Texan respondents to the 2008 National Annenberg Election Study, I generated a (logit) model, and did my best to guess at the 2008 vote preferences of some of the show’s key characters.  I’m also drawing on the fact that the real Ector County, Texas has a plurality of Southern Baptists, and that to my memory, we never see a Catholic church in four seasons I have finished.  To wit:

  • Buddy Garrity is an affable car dealer and big-time football booster whose wife leaves him for someone he denounces as a tree-hugging leftist.  That’s a sizable hint about his politics—when he’s off raising money for a Jumbotron for the football stadium, he’s probably not doubling as an Obama fundraiser.  In the model, I call him a business owner, and also identify him as a non-Hispanic white and as a 45-year-old Protestant.  I’m guessing his income to be $80,000, but it looks like the car business is very boom and bust, and the one firm financial fact we know is that he sells his house after his wife moves away for a bit over $200,000.  The survey didn’t ask about having a passion for football (or for employees), but the model gives him an 84% chance of backing McCain nonetheless.
  • From Buddy Garrity, it’s natural to move on to Joe McCoy, the character that actress Jurnee Smollett likened to Governor Romney.  I include a linked picture below so readers can judge for themselves.  Joe McCoy flatters Eric Taylor by explaining that he moved to Dillon, Texas so Eric could coach his son J.D.—and then has Eric fired and replaced with his son’s personal coach.  Fans of the show will hate to hear this, but from a survey research point of view, Joe McCoy looks a lot like Buddy: both are church-going Protestant fathers separated from their wives, and both are on the upper end of the local income spectrum.  Still, for McCoy, the upper end is quite a bit higher—so simply by shifting the “Buddy” model to have an income of $200,000, we get a probability of voting for McCain that is 89%.  That’s a nice illustration of Andrew Gelman’s point about the relationship between income and Republican voting in red states.
  • Tim Riggins is one of the most intriguing figures on the show—he has what an earlier generation would have called “character,’’ and lots of it, although that doesn’t keep him at football practice, in college, or out of trouble with the law.  Based on his high school education, and a rough guess that his annual income is $20,000—hey, if I knew exactly how lucrative running a chop shop was, you’d worry—I get Tim’s probability of backing McCain at 58%.  But let’s not forget research by Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman showing that encounters with the criminal justice system are demobilizing in general, or Marc Meredith’s evidence that turnout among former felons is low.  So it wouldn’t be shocking if Riggins passed on voting in 2008 entirely, even though Texas does restore the voting rights of those who have completed their sentence.
  • Politics is everywhere in the show, but explicit discussions of it are rare.  One exception is an awkward “meet the girlfriend” dinner where Landry Clarke’s mother tries to relate to Jess Merriweather by asking about President Obama.  Both Jess and Ms. Clarke tacitly agree that he’s doing a good job so far.  It’s certainly plausible that Ms. Clarke—a white woman married to a Dillion police officer—approved of Obama during the early days of his Presidency.  But according to the model, she nonetheless had a 65% chance of backing his 2008 opponent, John McCain.  The same male profile would back McCain at 71%, showing that the gender gap has its limits.  It’s a gap in the London Tube sense of the word—something you might not see if you aren’t careful.
  • On the other hand, Ms. Clarke’s interlocutor at dinner was a black high school student and aspiring football coach, Jess.  Jess was probably too young to vote in 2008.  But let’s say she makes $10,000 a year working at her father’s restaurant—and that she managed to turn 18 in time.  In that case, she’d vote for McCain about 4.6% of the time.  That number grows to 58% if I hold everything constant save her race.  So if you want to talk about gaps, the black-white gap in voting behavior is a place to start.
  • What about Tami Taylor, guidance counselor, principal, and surrogate mother to many?  In the fourth season, Tami gets embroiled in local abortion politics, but the issue centers on allegations about her advice rather than her actual views, which are less clear.  The Taylors’ financial situation is also a bit confusing—they seem stretched past the limit when Eric writes a $3,000 check to cover new uniforms, but they are a two-earner family in a county where the median home value for owner-occupied housing is $75,500.  I peg their household income at $110,000, and don’t need to worry about who earns what.   And by calling Tami a “professional,” I estimate her probability of having backed McCain to be 66%, or just about 2 out of 3.  That might have changed slightly if I had identified her as a government worker—and more so if she were in a union.
  • On, then, to Eric Taylor.  Linguistic George Lakoff would be likely to infer from Taylor’s “tough love” coaching style that he isn’t a fan of coddling, and thus isn’t very liberal.  But drawing clear connections between parenting or coaching and politics can be a stretch—and in this case, we’ve also got Taylor’s demographics to fall back on.  If we assume he’s got his wife’s demographic profile but for the gender, he’s a McCain supporter 71.7% of the time.  And if you think that misses the mark—well, you can certainly lobby the National Election Study to ask questions about whether you would go for a two-point conversion down by a point at the end of the fourth quarter.

** ADDENDUM: This previously read “strains belief.”  I meant that the events that Bissinger describes with respect to a Dallas high school—and that were reported elsewhere—are so striking that they sent me immediately to my computer to read more about the incidents and issues.  It’s a case where truth is stranger than fiction.  I highly recommend the book, and in no way meant to suggest that it was “truthy” or inaccurate.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Dan Hopkins

Dan Hopkins is an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University.