The Politics of Dillon, Texas

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.

18 Responses to The Politics of Dillon, Texas

  1. PLW October 24, 2012 at 8:35 am #

    A bunch of white folks in a small town in Texas vote Republican!?!?! I wasn’t so sure until you ran those regressions.

  2. Brian Arbour October 24, 2012 at 8:42 am #

    I can’t decide if this is the greatest achievement in the history of political science. Or the nadir of our discipline.

    Part of me is aghast at the time that went into analyzing the theoretical political views of fictional characters, but I think more of me is trying to figure our why Dan analyzed so few characters. I want to know the political views of Tyra, Lyla, Smash, and Landry. And who doesn’t love Billy and Mindy (Dan, there’s more of this in Season 5).

    To be (a little) more serious, what makes FNL such a great series is the rich depth of each of the characters and their interactions with others. It’s our understanding of who these characters are–and the excellent writng and acting that make these characters so real–that makes us appreciate the show. Such a nuanced understanding of these characters makes regression analysis–I use it, I love it, you cannot explain the world without it–such a limiting tool when it comes to speculating on the political views of these characters. We know these characters so well that using race, gender, and income as the only tools to explain their political views seems incomplete.

  3. Jeffrey Billman October 24, 2012 at 9:42 am #

    Ah, but would it factor in that Tami helped counsel a young woman to get an abortion at the end of S4 (I think), and lost her job as principal for it? That, to my recollection, was the only glimpse of explicitly social issues the show had.

    • slick October 24, 2012 at 10:13 pm #

      What show were you watching? First, Tami didn’t “counsel a young woman to get an abortion.” Her student came to her saying “I can’t take care of a baby…I can’t.” Afterwards, Tami tells her where she would find information about getting an abortion and tells her very specifically *to make no decision without consulting her parents (mother) first*. She lost her job when the father’s mother raised a fuss about sending her off to a clinic.

      Second, as for that being the “only social issue” the show had, there was also the situations of (a) a kid taking care of his grandmother alone as she sunk into Alzheimer’s, and navigating the health care system (b) the consequences that war had on his relationship with his father a soldier (c) steroids in sport (d) racial divides in education (e) class divides in access to athletic facilities (f) marital infidelity and divorce (g) prescription drug abuse (h) gang activity (i) race-based harrassment by police and racial tension generally (j) the challenges of the physically challenged …

      • Crissa October 24, 2012 at 11:56 pm #

        Sure sounds like the liberal position you described. Steroids in sport isn’t a social issue, either.

  4. Andrew Gelman October 24, 2012 at 10:12 am #


    Regarding the “Bissinger’s non-fiction narrative at times strains belief . . .” point: Is this standard practice in nonfiction sports books, or did Bissinger put in a note somewhere saying that some of the characters are composite, etc? With a literary journalist such as Mark Twain or David Sedaris, you gotta expect that half the stuff is made up and the other half is exaggerated, similarly your Michael Moores will distort as they feel necessary to make their points, but I thought the Bissingers of the world operated under stricter rules.

    I doubt any of us could easily get Bissinger on the line, but if you were to ask him about this, do you think he’d say that the incident occurred exactly as he described, would he say that he engaged in some distortions for dramatic effect, or would he just brush it off? I’m not trying to be the “accuracy police” here, I’m just wondering how authors of docudrama handle such questions.

  5. Dan Hopkins October 24, 2012 at 10:31 am #

    Andrew, just to be clear, I have every reason to think that Bissinger was accurate in his reporting. I didn’t mean to call that accuracy into question. What strains belief is what actually happened in the story that he narrates: hundreds of people driving hundreds of miles to Austin to pack a hearing room and find out how the state’s top education official would rule on a student’s interim grade, and thus on his play-off eligibility. And then there is another story about two football recruits who get into robbery–armed robbery, I think–just for fun, and throw away their scholarships and so much else. This stuff is all well documented.

    • Andrew Gelman October 24, 2012 at 10:36 am #

      Aaahhhh, now I understand. Thanks for clarifying.

    • scott cunningham October 24, 2012 at 6:17 pm #

      Don’t forget when Landy killed that guy! (I know you’re talking about the book here, but I feel obligated to point out the bizarro season when landry killed a guy and his policeman dad helped him cover up, but then kind of moved on with his life pretty soon thereafter.) Awesome post, btw. Just sent it to my students who are using logit for the first time.

  6. Brian Arbour October 24, 2012 at 10:39 am #

    Bissinger is a journalist and FNL the book reads like journalism. If my memory serves me correct, he traveled to Austin to cover the SBOE hearing himself.

  7. ceolaf October 24, 2012 at 11:03 am #

    Tammy is a public school guidance counselor, and briefly serves as a school principal.

    If you model does not show that she is more like to vote for Obama than Romney is failing to make good use of the available data. Even without collective bargaining (FYI: no collective bargaining for teachers in Texas, and therefore no teacher union contracts), teachers lean STRONGLY Democratic.

    Even football coaches.

    • Sebastian October 24, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

      I thought that was odd, too. I didn’t follow FNL closely, but towards the end there’s a scene were she comes out strongly against standardized tests at a conference – that’s very likely a position held by a Democrat. And once we have here as a likely democrat, that also should change coach Taylor’s conditional probability – I don’t know research on political views of spouses, but I’d be surprised if the correlation wasn’t pretty strong.

      • Crissa October 25, 2012 at 12:11 am #

        That doesn’t sound like any Democratic position I’ve ever heard. Looking at the NEA, they seem to be of the position that testing just shouldn’t be the majority of how to appraise the performance of teachers.

  8. slacker57 October 24, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

    Thanks for a really interesting article. Have to agree about Tami’s leanings being more for the President than the model suggests.

    One minor issue I see is that the back story paragraph leaves out the movie which was released in 2004. The reason the movie matters is that Connie Britton plays the coach’s wife and Brad Leland plays a big booster; which of course were roles that they continued on the show.

  9. Laura Seay October 24, 2012 at 4:12 pm #

    Just one quibble: there are actually quite a few Catholics in Ector County, Texas. That we don’t see them in FNL is also a pretty accurate reflection of how white small town Texans live their lives, but this is a part of the world that has lots of Latinos who live largely in the shadows, working the worst jobs in the oilfields and as domestic servants in the bosses homes.

    Also, Andrew, I’m a West Texas native, and, yeah, Bissinger’s “characters” were/are all too real. Permian had a really skewed sense of what education for athletes meant for many years. It’s gotten a little bit better since the book was published. Not coincidentally, the Panthers aren’t nearly as good as they used to be, either.

  10. Matt October 24, 2012 at 9:29 pm #

    I know your interest is just figuring out the politics of certain FNL characters, but I want to point out that these findings aren’t really meaningful to the discussion of Romney’s appropriation of the “Clear Eyes” slogan. They’re also only one part of a discussion of the show’s overall politics.

    A story can be about a bunch of people with a particular mindset without the story itself necessarily reflecting that mindset’s views, assumptions, or tendencies. Showing that certain FNL characters would be conservatives/Republicans doesn’t make FNL a conservative/Republican show. (For that matter, looking at the show’s ratings among different demographics would not prove “what the show is.” It may suggest some things, based on subjects or story lines resonating more with some people than with others.)

    I think judging the appropriate use of the slogan by different politicians is tied to the question of which voters those politicians represent and which concerns they seem to care most about. That means looking at the subjects the show considers and the kinds of obstacles its characters have to face.

    From the beginning, FNL was about the challenges that regular families and individuals face trying to hold their lives together. Just consider Season 1’s dramas – recovering from a devastating injury; rebuilding one’s life when Plan A falls apart; struggling to get by when military service takes a parent away; caring for a grandparent with declining health… Compared to Obama, are these the sorts of struggles Romney faced in his own life? That he seems to care about? Most importantly, that his policy proposals seem aimed at addressing?

    Look at the sources of drama in later seasons – Coach Taylor’s ouster from his job by a rich, inconsiderate, selfish jerk; inequality of resources across the education system; racial inequalities within communities; prisoner reentry (!!). I know the Democratic Party isn’t exactly the Poor People’s Party, but of the two, which candidate and which party do you think better reflect the sensibilities behind these narrative choices?

    This is at least is why I, as an Obama supporter, don’t like Romney’s use of the slogan. But really, pointing out Romney is just like Joe McCoy is a much better, more succinct way of expressing the sentiment.

  11. Billy Riggins October 24, 2012 at 11:15 pm #

    For those wondering, I’m a member of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party.