May 4, 2016
On Monday, 5000-1 shot Leicester City won the English Premier League. On Tuesday, the slightly less improbable Donald Trump effectively won the Republican nomination. It’s not an exact parallel. The Donald still has one remaining hurdle. Leicester’s pre-season odds were somewhere between Trump’s chances at the presidency and mine.
Still, both completely broke precedent. Trump is only the third major party nominee never to have held political office, served in a cabinet, or as a military general. Charles C. Pinckney helmed the Federalist ticket in 1804 and 1808, losing twice. Even he was the vice presidential nominee in 1800 and previously served as Minister to France (more important than a modern day ambassador in the days before decent communications.)
Wendell Willkie in 1940 is the only real analogue. A divided GOP chose the businessman and ex-Democrat to challenge FDR’s attempt at an unprecedented third term. Willkie did better than his predecessor Alf Landon in 1936, but lost badly. If Trump makes this even somewhat close in November, he’ll have the best results of anyone with a non-traditional resume.
While Trump clearly played his cards well, breaking precedent takes assistance. Leicester City has competed in English football (soccer to us) for 132 years. This is their first top-level league championship. They finished second back in the 1928-29 season.
Like most soccer leagues throughout the world (but not MLS in America), the English have promotion and relegation. The worst three clubs get sent to a lower level, the top three from the rung down promoted to replace them. Last season (2014-15), Leicester returned to the EPL and got off to a wretched start. This isn’t uncommon. A large number of promoted clubs are one season up and back to where they came from.
With two months left in the season, they sat 20th of 20. Somehow, they managed to win 7 of their final 9 contests to place 14th. Not exactly a top club, but a great save. This was the equivalent of someone hitting on a favorable poll to make the 10th and final spot in one of the early main debates.
Far better than the undercard, but we know what happened to most of those candidates. When the just completed season began, oddsmakers viewed Leicester City less favorably than George Pataki or Jim Gilmore. As feeble as their odds were, at least they needed to get past Jeb, Scott Walker, and friends, not peak Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower.
That’s what Leicester was fighting. Clubs like Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Liverpool have dominated the league for years. Even Liverpool has failed to win the title since the Premier League was constituted in its current form for 1992-93. The other four clubs combined to win 22 of the 23 titles before this season.
Man U won 13 of them by themselves. Of late, they’ve struggled, finding it hard to dominate in the absence of long-time manager Sir Alex Ferguson (yeah, he won enough to to get knighted.) Think of them like the Bush dynasty. They weren’t title favorites at the start of the year, but heavily funded strong contenders, far more likely than Leicester.
Arsenal is always a contender but hasn’t won for years. Many enjoy their style of play. Always one of the top four, but unwilling to go all in on a single season. They have a nasty habit of choking when a key victory would put them ahead, often to an inferior opponent. Marco Rubio, here’s your team.
Chelsea won the 2014-15 title and possessed one of the most famous managers in the world (Jose Mourinho, who’s nickname is the “Special One”.) They weren’t expected to have an easy go this time, but were strong contenders. Instead they got off to an awful start and fired Mourinho mid-season, having removed themselves from the fight. Think Scott Walker.
Manchester City has a roster full of established stars and seemingly endless supplies of money. They’ve won twice in recent seasons and are always a threat. They’re our proxy for the squad of governors from Christie to Kasich, Jindal to Perry that seemed ready to produce a nomination contender a year ago.
Tottenham Hotspur was not considered a serious contender when the season began. While they had a strong core of young players, they weren’t perceived as ready yet. Though possessing a distinctive style of play, Spurs hadn’t won the top league since the early 1960s. Others would need to falter for them to get a shot.
Once they did, Spurs moved up the table and spent most of the season in the top three, watching teams with a better pedigree fall behind. However, they just couldn’t catch Leicester. Whenever they’d get close, a key loss or tie would cause separation. Leicester won and tied the two head-to-head match ups.
When this turned into a two-team race down the stretch, Tottenham faltered, allowing Leicester to clinch the trophy a couple weeks before the official end of the season. After hoping for a chance to stand out from the other contenders, Spurs were not up to the task when they got their wish. Now they are left to hope for better results from their young players as they mature in future seasons. Hi Ted Cruz.
Like Trump, Leicester City led the league from the beginning of the season until the end. At the beginning, nobody thought they had a chance. When they broke out to an early lead, nobody thought it would hold. It was the product of weak competition early in the season. When they played the big clubs during the holiday season, it would never last. It did.
Halfway through, they were still in front. At that point, observers conceded they would finish top 4 (a big thing which entitles a club to play in the lucrative Champions League the next season), but were still viewed as likely to fall short. Though none of the other teams could avoid slipping up, surely one of them would stop Leicester.
Trump managed to avoid many of the distractions other candidates faced. Being able to seed his campaign with money and gaining billions in free media, Trump avoided fundraising, something other candidates often find debilitating. With his celebrity and ready access to any and all media formats, he eschewed the normal meet & greet style of campaigning, sticking primarily to large arenas and event halls, getting to sleep at home most nights.
He required fewer resources and was better rested than his competition. So was Leicester. English teams play in multiple competitions at the same time. Concurrent with the regular season are two cup competitions, the FA Cup and League Cup. Pretend NBA teams played two versions of March Madness during the middle of their regular season. Leicester got knocked out of both relatively early, allowing them to commit all resources to the title fight.
More importantly, they missed out on European football, competitions with big name peers from Spain, Italy, Germany, France, etc. The UEFA Champions League has spots for the top 4 English squads, and the next two find a home in the Europa League. Each of the team’s mentioned above were participating in one or the other.
If you get knocked out of Champions League midway, the Europa League is your consolation, keeping the team in extra action. Having competitors busy like this while you rest up for the next league match is the equivalent of political opponents needing to jet to California to grab money while you campaign or sleep.
The “big” clubs also have big expectations from their supporters. When they lose a couple of matches, their supporters regularly lose their wits. Media scrutiny is often unbearable. If you think Jeb Bush took more than his share of abuse and second guessing, it’s nothing compared to the manager of an underachieving big budget football squad.
The endless process questions trailing candidates have dealt with are the equivalent of uncomfortable post-game press conferences. While Leicester certainly felt some butterflies at some point, they were exceeding expectations by so much, that neither the players, nor manager Claudio Ranieri had anywhere near the same scrutiny as their key opponents.
Each time Leicester needed a win, they got one. It wasn’t always pretty. Over the final couple months, they won several by 1-0 scores. Though Trump finished things off with several huge wins, his seemingly modest 3 to 10 point victories earlier on were at least as important. In both cases, they won when they had to. Any time the competition got close, the underdog leader reminded everyone who the winner was.
This fall, Leicester begins play in the Champions League (concurrent with the 2016-17 EPL season.) Everyone will assume they’ll struggle. Instead of taking advantage of several English clubs having an off season, they’ll eventually need to get past the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich, among others.
Teams who overachieve while sticking to the EPL only, virtually always struggle the following season when they need to divide their resources. Many observers are positive, Trump’s lack of ground game and solid data analytics doom him against Hillary. Sure he survived a primary against flawed foes, but how can he compete at the next level?
Clinton will press him in a way fellow Republicans didn’t. He’ll need to do well outside the protected bubble of party primaries. While he has an incredibly dedicated core of voters, they aren’t enough to win a general election.
We’ll hear the same of Leicester. Playing a road game in the Ukraine on a weeknight is tougher than a weekend day in Newcastle or Norwich, England. Their small core of key players will get exposed when they need to rotate their squad to cover the extra games. Without adding to their roster, they’re doomed.
Perhaps Leicester will get bounced early from Champions League and struggle to stay above the relegation line in the Premier League. We may look back on this Cinderella season and wonder how they ever got so far.
Trump could fail to win a single state Barack Obama did and lose several Mitt Romney states. A poll taken in Utah several weeks ago showed him tied with Clinton in a state Republicans should win by at least 30 points, likely closer to 40.
But if we’ve learned anything from American politics and English soccer in the past 10 months, it’s not to assume. Watch out Hillary. Leicester’s odds were and are worse than The Donald’s.