U.S. Presidents and Ohio Professional Football Over History
Most people are very familiar with the importance of the state of Ohio is United States presidential elections.
A notorious ‘swing’ state, Ohio also chooses the winner with alarming accuracy. Since the Civil War, the United States as a whole has only gone against Ohio five times (including 2020, when Joe Biden failed to win the Buckeye State but was elected President.)
So if Ohio has the ability to ‘swing’ presidential races, why not do so to the state’s advantage? Can certain Presidents make things better for the citizens of Ohio – specifically, sports fans?
Pro football’s modern era in Ohio began in 1946, when the Cleveland Browns started as a charter member of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC). More than 20 years later, the Cincinnati Bengals joined the American Football League (AFL), absorbed two years later by the National Football League.
We look at each Presidential administration since and the fortunes of Ohio’s football franchise and attempt to determine whether the Browns’ and Bengals’ fortunes tilt Red or Blue?
Browns’ and Bengals’ Records by President
Harry S. Truman (Democratic President from 1945-1953): Paul Brown founded the Cleveland franchise in Truman’s second year and immediately oversaw an era of total domination.
The seven football seasons during Truman’s remaining terms saw five league titles for the Browns (four in the AAFC, one NFL) and two more runner-up finishes in the NFL. Brown twice won Coach of the Year, and Otto Graham was the 1951 Most Valuable Player. This time period the unquestioned pinnacle of the Cleveland franchise.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (Republican President from 1953-1961): The end of Truman’s term didn’t mean the end of the good times for Cleveland football, as Graham led the Browns to two more NFL titles in 1954 and 1955.
1957 saw the debut of legendary running back Jim Brown as Cleveland dropped the NFL championship game to Detroit. However, 1959 would see the Browns miss the playoffs for what would become the first of five consecutive seasons.
John F. Kennedy (Democratic President from 1961-1963): Kennedy’s tragic assassination cut his term short, and the fortunes of Cleveland football took a turn for the worse as the Browns missed the playoffs in all three NFL seasons during his presidency.
Lyndon B. Johnson (Democratic President from 1963-1969): Johnson’s first football season as president was also the final Cleveland championship year (1964), as the remainder of his term saw the Browns lose two more NFL championship games (these would hereafter be known as the NFC Championship Game.)
Meanwhile, in Johnson’s final year in the White House, the Cincinnati Bengals joined the AFL, going 3-11 in their inaugural season.
Richard M. Nixon (Republican President from 1969-1974): The only thing more disgraceful than Nixon’s departure from office was the state of Ohio football at the time, as the Browns and Bengals combined for only three playoff appearances in the six years – and not a single postseason victory.
Gerald Ford (Republican President from 1974-1977): The change from Nixon did nothing for Ohio football fortunes, as the playoff victory drought reached nine seasons for the Browns and Bengals.
Jimmy Carter (Democratic President from 1977-1981): More fruitless years in Ohio football, as it took until the very end of the Carter administration for either team to return to the playoffs (the Browns did so at the end of the 1980 season, losing a divisional round game to the Oakland Raiders.)
Ronald W. Reagan (Republican President from 1981-1989): This was the era where Ohio’s professional fortunes turned from hapless to heartbreaking.
In the very first NFL season under Reagan (1981), the Bengals broke through with their first two playoff victories in team history to qualify for Super Bowl 16 – where they fell by five points to Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers by only five points.
Six more thin years followed, with Cincinnati returning to the Super Bowl in Reagan’s final season as President – only to meet Montana and San Francisco once more. Exactly two days after Reagan left office, the Bengals fell to the 49ers once more, this time on a last-minute touchdown.
Yet some Ohio fans would tell you the Browns endured more heartbreak over the time period, as they absorbed two crushing defeats to the Denver Broncos in the 1986 and 1987 AFC Championship Games. The two games became known as ‘The Drive’ and ‘The Fumble’ in Cleveland lore, denoting the deflating nature by which the Browns dropped both contests.
George Bush (Republican President from 1989-1993): The 1989 season ended with another Cleveland loss to Denver in the AFC Championship Game, while the Bengals would follow with a playoff victory in 1990 over the Houston Oilers.
Little did they know at the time it would be the Bengals’ last playoff victory until 2021. But what came next was even worse.
Bill Clinton (Democratic President from 1993-2001): After one last wild-card playoff victory over the New England Patriots in 1994, the Cleveland Browns shocked their fans and the football world by picking up after the 1995 season, moving to Baltimore and changing their name to the Ravens. The heartbroken fans of Cleveland would wait four long years before a new, expansion franchise named the Browns would return NFL football to Cleveland in 1999.
Suddenly, across the state Bengals fans were just happy to have pro football in town – even if the orange and black never qualified for the NFL playoffs in Clinton’s eight years.
George W. Bush (Republican President from 2001-2009): The new team in Cleveland got their footing quickly enough to qualify for the playoff in 2002, dropping a wild-card game to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Bengals saw their promising 2005 season end at the hands of those same Steelers, as star QB Carson Palmer was knocked out of their playoff game with a knee injury.
Barack Obama (Democratic President from 2009-2017): Two distinct types of disappointment – for the Browns, only 34 victories over eight seasons would yield nothing but last-place finishes for Obama’s entire administration.
The division rival Bengals would benefit from Cleveland’s ineptitude – at least until the playoffs started. Cincinnati managed to make the playoffs in six of seven seasons between 2009 and 2015 – yet lost every time. Three of those losses came at home, and only two were by a touchdown or less.
Donald Trump (Republican President from 2017-2021): The first three years were poor even by the low standards of these two franchises, with the Browns bottoming out at a 0-16 record in 2017, and the Bengals winning only 19 games over the four-year period.
However, 2020 saw both sets of fortunes turn – the Browns won their first playoff game since the 1999 expansion over the hated Steelers, while the Bengals drafted quarterback Joe Burrow, leading to…
Joe Biden (Democratic President from 2021-current): The Browns fell just short of a second consecutive playoff season with a record of 8-9 in 2021.
But across the state, the Bengals captured the imagination of NFL fans with a trio of playoff victories over the Las Vegas Raiders, Tennessee Titans, and Kansas City Chiefs to qualify for the franchise’s third Super Bowl and first since 1989.
The event would end in disappointment again; a 23-20 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. But with a young coach and supremely talented offense, this loss felt like a beginning rather than an ending.
So Who’s Better for Ohio Football? Republican or Democratic Presidents?
The vast majority of pro football success in Ohio came during the 1940s and 1950s, an era in which the Browns claimed seven titles between the AAFC and NFL. Five of those came during Truman (Democratic) and the other two with Eisenhower (Republican) in office. The Browns’ last championship (1964) came with Democratic Lyndon B. Johnson in office.
Once the Bengals joined the league, both their Super Bowl appearances of the 1980s came with Reagan (Republican) in the White House – this was also an era of sustained success in Cleveland, who made three AFC Championship games.
Downsides? The mid-1990s under Clinton (Democratic) saw the Browns leave Cleveland. On the other hand, both squads have been notoriously poor since the turn of the century, with the lowlight of the Browns’ winless season in 2017, the start of Trump’s (Republican) presidency.
The Bengals’ return to the Super Bowl in the first football season under Biden (Democratic) pushes this debate to the Blue side. Six out of eight Ohio pro football championships came with a Democratic president, and now the Bengals have added the first Ohio Super Bowl appearance in 33 years.
More than anything, however, fans who can remember the era are longing for a return to the fortunes of the 1940s-1950s, when Ohio ruled the pro football world.