Early February will be remembered for a high-stakes contest that had endless analysis, faltering favorites, blown calls, controversial commercials, coin flips and even trash talking.

Oh yeah, the Super Bowl is on Sunday, too.

Like the big game, the Iowa caucuses — the kickoff to 2016’s political gamesmanship — have become an outsized event backed by big money, despite more modest beginnings.

The caucuses didn’t really seize the interest of the public or the political world until 1976, when a then-unknown southern governor flew under the radar to finish second (“Undecided” bested Jimmy Carter that year). Conversely, nothing went undetected this year, as saturation coverage carried the story worldwide, including the coin flips that determined Democratic delegates in some tied precincts.

New Hampshire, the site of Tuesday’s first presidential primary, has also grown exponentially in meaning — and media. The iconic optics used to be rugged Granite Staters voting at midnight in tiny Dixville Notch, not nationally televised rallies by Donald Trump. The Super Bowl also had humbler origins. So Spartan, in fact, that it wasn’t until this year that film was found of the first NFL-AFL Championship 50 years ago. And even then radio audio had to overlay the grainy video.

The recent rebroadcast of that game was on the NFL’s own network. Politics has its own permanent presence, too, on CSPAN, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.

The NFL’s leap from lost footage to 24/7 coverage is a result of societal shifts, technological transformations, media industry economics and many other factors. But more than anything, it’s about the popularity of football — America’s true national pastime. (Sorry, baseball purists, but TV ratings reflect this fact, as does a new Syracuse University poll stating that twice as many Americans choose the gridiron over the diamond for their favorite sport.)

Political polls, conversely, suggest that disliking the government is about the only uniquely unifying political viewpoint. Only 19 percent “trust the government always or most of the time,” while 74 percent believe that “most elected officials put their own interests ahead of the country,” according to a Pew Research Center poll in November.

Of course, Sunday’s big game isn’t just any Super Bowl, but Super Bowl 50. The Roman numerals normally associated with the title game will return next year. So, too, will the gladiator vibe that attracts fans but repels critics who call the rising toll of injuries and concussions unconscionable. (Just this week, researchers revealed that the brain of former Super Bowl quarterback Ken Stabler, who died in July, was “riddled” with chronic traumatic encephalopathy.)

But while concussion concerns may have benched some kids, the couches will be packed with fans of all ages Sunday, as once again the Super Bowl likely will be the most viewed event of this, or any, year.

In fact, the game itself has been supersized, spurring a need for a two-week gap between the AFC and NFC Championship Games just to fit in the hype. And gameday is just that, with a marathon pregame followed by a long game (partly due to expensive, expansive commercials), a halftime spectacular (or flop, depending on the pop star), postgame and then primetime promotion (or late night, since CBS is featuring Stephen Colbert).

While the similarities between this week’s big events are compelling, the key difference is more striking. Most notably, the Super Bowl is a rare moment of unity at a time when our politics reflect, or create, deepening divisions.

In fact, the game underscores the importance of, well, games. Sport unifies societies worldwide. Mostly it’s futbol, not football. But whether it’s World Cup soccer, cricket, next summer’s Olympics or many other events, sport has an almost singular ability to create cohesion.

Ideally, politics would do that, too, even in closely contested elections. But this year feels different, because divisions as sharp as the those in the mid- to late 1960s — around the time of the first Super Bowl — mark this year’s campaign.

Once again, there’s rancor over war, inequity and other polarizing issues. Once again, there are insurgent candidates on the left and right threatening an establishment considered corroded, if not corrupt. And once again, political differences seem to exacerbate social differences.

Despite the divisive times, back then the center held.

And while it’s still too early tell if that will be the case in 2016, the societal center will certainly endure.

Because as so many societal institutions indicate — including the unofficial Super Bowl “holiday” on Sunday — Americans are more united than their candidates give them credit for.

 

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.