Ever since Sen. Ted Cruz's embarrassing "basketball ring" gaffe, the 2016 GOP primary race in Indiana has been defined to a certain degree by sports culture. And as the race for the presidential nomination reaches its fourth quarter, front-runner Donald Trump appears to be headed for a slam dunk at the voting booths.
It's perhaps not surprising that sports would take center stage in the Hoosier state. Basketball, and to a lesser extent football, has come to define much of the state's national identity, and how a politician navigates that culture can affect whether or not voters perceive you as authentic. So when Cruz got not just the language, but the location, of his basketball reference wrong, it resonated.
Everyone from President Barack Obama to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has had fun at Cruz's expense ever since his attempt to recreate a scene from the classic 1986 basketball drama "Hoosiers" fell flat. And his sports fails this month didn't end there. He also made a less than artful analogy revolving around NASCAR auto racing. “If and when we win [the primary] it may feature, like the Indy 500, a campaign crashing and burning and catching on fire,” he told supporters last week.
"Hoosiers can see through Ted Cruz. Hoosiers can smell bulls--t," former state Democratic Party chair Daniel J. Parker told MSNBC on Tuesday. "In this state, where you have seven or 10 of the biggest high school gymnasiums in the country ... you don't go to a Hoosier gym and do that. That was a turning point ... it just showed that he was grasping."
In Parker's estimation, the "basketball ring" gaffe was just one of several strategic missteps that most likely put a state that should have been well within his reach in Trump's column.
According to Parker, Cruz failed to recognize just how many state Republicans — who had warmed to former Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels' more business-minded approach to governance — are dissatisfied by current Gov. Mike Pence's more ideological strain, typified by the controversial religious freedom bill he championed last year. Parker said he was also stunned by the lack of opposition research exploiting Trump's long, checkered history in the state.
While Cruz has attacked Trump for aligning himself with heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson (who was convicted of rape in Indianapolis in 1992), he has not raised that fact that the real estate mogul oversaw a riverboat casino in the state that went bankrupt or mentioned how a beauty pageant held in Gary, Indiana failed to delivered the economic windfall he promised.
"They couldn't have played this worse," Parker said.
Meanwhile, despite more than his fair share of sports-related blunders, Trump has cleaned up with some of the most beloved names in local sports. The first, and most prominent, endorsement came from former champion Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight, who has suffered virtually no backlash for suggesting that like ex-president Harry Truman, the real estate mogul would be unafraid to exercise nuclear power on America's perceived enemies. Despite a reputation for violent temper tantrums and a history of offensive public statements (''I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it," he once said), Knight remains beloved in Indiana.
Since Knight's widely publicized performances on the stump, icons like former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz (a former Clinton supporter), former Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps, former Purdue basketball coach Gene Keady and ex-ballplayers like Fred Williamson, have all lined up behind Trump, cheering on his tough guy rhetoric and attesting to his machismo. Although Trump's record as a failure as a sports businessman is well-documented, he has enjoyed a lot of vocal support from current and former athletes and coaches, like the Buffalo Bills' Rex Ryan.
"Maybe [it's] a collective middle finger," ESPN commentator and Washington Post columnist Kevin Blackistone mused in a recent interview with NPR. "Because they have all thumbed their noses at authority at institutional organizations, and continued to do things as they wanted to do it, regardless of the rules and regulations before."
"The persona of each of those gentlemen is 'no nonsense,'" added Parker. "That's the part of Trump that appeals to them."
Still, Parker points out that the overwhelming majority of Indiana sports hero support he has received has come from people who are no longer as active in the state, and whose glories either on the football field of basketball court came decades ago.
"The most popular people in the state from the sports world have stayed on the sidelines," said Parker, mentioning NBA legend Larry Bird, future NFL Hall of Famer Peyton Manning and current Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens as prominent examples.
However, even if Trump is poised to win big on Tuesday, his challenges in a general election against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton spell a familiar story. Demographic shifts in the state could spell doom for Trump in November, even if Indiana sports royalty has his back. The state has a growing immigrant population —they boast the biggest influx of Burmese immigrants in the country — and these voters tend to lean Democratic. Parker says poll watchers should pay particular attention to what Hoosiers refer to as "the doughnut around Indianapolis"
That region of the state, which includes many suburban women, helped propel Democrat Joe Donnelly to victory in his 2012 Senate campaign against Republican Richard Mourdock. That year, Obama didn't compete in Indiana, but he won the state narrowly in 2008. And Parker believes that Clinton could repeat his feat by outperforming Trump by picking off moderate Republicans who have soured on Pence.
Ultimately, aggressively courting Pence may have been Cruz's cardinal sin, according to Parker. "I can't for the life of me understand why he endorsed," Parker said. "Mitch Daniels' Republicans are in misery," he added, and the Texas senator's failure to see that Indiana is more conservative on fiscal issues than social ones will cost him dearly on election night.
"I'm expecting Trump to roll [to victory]," Parker said.