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White House

Want to Win Your March Madness Pool? Don't Follow Obama's Bracket.

President Barack Obama plays basketball during the annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House tennis court.(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

photo of Matt  Berman
March 19, 2014

There's no doubt that President Obama enjoys basketball. Just ask Chicago Bulls Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen. Or likely future Hall of Famer LeBron James. Or—sure, why not—Education Secretary (and 2014 NBA All Star Celebrity Game MVP) Arne Duncan.

However, that doesn't mean you should trust the president's opinion when it comes to picking winners for the NCAA college basketball tournament, best known to the layman as March Madness. Ever since Obama began his campaign for the White House, it's been his tradition to release his NCAA bracket, typically with an accompanying interview with ESPN.

This year, Obama's going with a Final Four of Louisville, Florida, Arizona, and Michigan State. The selection may seem overly safe. Of that group, the two teams that aren't top seeds (Michigan State and Louisville are both No. 4 seeds) are both heavily favored to make it to the Final Four, per FiveThirtyEight's prediction model. Obama actually went straight Nate Silver this year for his top teams. From there, he's got Michigan State over Louisville to win the whole thing. FiveThirtyEight's model gives Michigan State a 6 percent chance of winning the tournament.


It's a fine tradition, and not one that we at National Journal mean to discourage in any way. It is also, however, one that the president doesn't quite excel at. Of the last 24 college basketball teams to make the Final Four, Obama has only correctly picked seven of them. That's just under a 30 percent success rate. Not quite impeachabledefinitely could be worsebut it's nothing to be too proud of either. And it's certainly not a track record you should count on if you're trying to win your office pool.

We originally published a version of this story a year ago. Because the truth holds. Here's a look at how Obama's Final Four picks have panned out over the past six years.

Obama's 2013 Picks: 1 for 4

(White House)Obama's national champion: Indiana

Actual national champion: Louisville

Last year, Obama wasn't really feeling upsets for his Final Four. You've got two top seeds (Louisville and Indiana), a No. 2 seed (Ohio), and a No 3 (Florida). Unfortunately for him, this didn't work out well. Wichita State, ranked ninth, came out of relative obscurity to make the Final Four and knock out Ohio State in the process. Indiana wound up losing to Syracuse, which went on to top Marquette to make the Final Four. And while Florida nearly got there, they lost to Michigan by 20 in the Elite Eight.

The bracket overall, per ESPN, ranked 2,080,996 out of 8.15 million entries on, good for the 74.4th percentile. Certainly not the worst.

Obama's 2012 Picks: 2 for 4

Obama's national champion: UNC
Actual national champion: Kentucky

In 2012, Obama was in full campaign mode. And that may've translated to his bracket. UNC may have been a top seed, but Kentucky was a pretty decent favorite, with a 27 percent chance of winning the championship compared with UNC's 9 percent chance, according to Nate Silver's model. But it looks like with his bracket, the president took a swing state over a unibrow.

Of Obama's picks for the Final Four in 2012, only Kentucky and Ohio State actually made it in. Not terrible, not great. 

Obama's 2011 Picks: 0 for 4

Obama's national champion: Kansas
Actual national champion: Connecticut

This is where things start going quite poorly for the president. Obama thought he was playing it safe by picking all No. 1 seeds in 2011. Unfortunately for him, that year's tournament got pretty wacky. 

Need your memory jogged? Just look at the Final Four, featuring No. 11 VCU and  No. 8 Butler. Obama also missed No. 3 seed Connecticut (remember Kemba?) and No. 4 Kentucky, for a complete Final Four wash.

Obama's 2010 Picks: 0 for 4

Obama's national champion: Kansas
Actual national champion: Duke

Another yikes year for Obama. In 2010, the president picked two No. 1 seeds and two No. 2 seeds for the Final Four and, as he would the next year, went with Kansashis family's hometown team—for the championship.

As it turned out, Duke won the tournament that year and was joined in the Final Four by Michigan State, Butler, and the West Virginia Mountaineers. All in all, the tournament proved to be just the first shellacking the president received in 2010.

Obama's 2009 Picks: 1 for 4 ... and the Winner!

Obama's national champion: UNC
Actual national champion: UNC

The first months of Obama's first term in office weren't too unkind to the president. In February, he got the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka the stimulus) passed through Congress. And, just a month later, he managed to pull out the winning team for the year's NCAA tournament.

Of course, beneath the topline victory, Obama's Final Four picks didn't fare too well. The Final Four that year were Michigan State, Connecticut, Villanova, and UNC. So while he did pick UNC to win it all, he did a pretty poor job of sorting out the competition.

Obama's 2008 Picks: 3 for 4

Obama's national champion: UNC
Actual national champion: Kansas

Despite the rigours of running his first presidential campaignand trying to hold off Hillary Clintoncandidate Obama managed to put together his best NCAA bracket (so far) of the last six years in 2008. Of the actual members of the Final Four, Obama missed only Memphis. And, really, Memphis' season was later voided, so maybe he was onto something.

Oh, and the team that Obama decided to include over Memphis? The No. 4 ranked Pittsburgh Panthers, conveniently located in the swing state of Pennsylvania. Obama's near-perfect 2008 bracket: just another casualty of electoral politics.

DISCLAIMER: The author of this post is very, very bad at picking March Madness brackets and would honestly be thrilled with anything approaching a 30 percent success rate.

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