Bowling on the Campaign Trail: The Politics of Tenpins

Ollie Atkins/Special Collections and Archives C0036/George Mason U

Republican candidate Rick Santorum has said that his bowling skills offer yet another example of a contrast between him and President Obama. So the former Pennsylvania senator displayed his talent for bowling this week in an effort to connect with Midwestern voters while campaigning in Wisconsin.

From Sheboygan to Fond du Lac to La Crosse, Santorum has visited three bowling allies in the past five days.

"You're going to have someone who knows how to bowl," he said while bowling at Lakeshore Lanes in Sheboygan Saturday. "Someone who grew up like you."

Santorum, 53, began his bowling stint  Saturday  in Sheboygan with a "turkey," or three strikes in a row,  but he lost his hot streak four days later in La Crosse, scoring only 88 points in seven frames. Despite the low score, Santorum challenged Mitt Romney to ditch the state's primary Tuesday and let a bowling match be the deciding outcome.

"I think we should maybe decide Wisconsin in a [bowling] match," he said. "What do you think? Just come here, we'll say we'll put it all on the line."

The White House has been outfitted over the years with putting greens, swimming pools, a jogging track, a tennis court and, more recently, a basketball court. But one of the residence's oldest recreational facilities is the West Wing's legendary bowling alley. Bowling lanes have since become a site of campaign battles and primary challenges, from the Clinton years to 2012's presidential race.

Bowling lanes were first built within walking distance of the Oval Office as a birthday gift for President Truman in 1947, but were later moved to the Executive Office Building in 1955. An avid bowler, President Richard Nixon later had his own bowling lane installed in the White House basement in 1969. The image of Nixon bowling alone in the White House's North Portico has become iconic.

"I usually bowl at about 10 o'clock at night. When I'm here, I bowl alone," Nixon once said.

His average was 152, he said, and his high score was 232, according to John Sayle Watterson, author of " The Games Presidents Play: Sports and the Presidency."

During the 2004 presidential campaign against President George W. Bush, Democratic hopeful John Kerry visited the Rose Bowl bowling alley in Mason City, Iowa. In between rolling bowling balls, Kerry took a jab at his Republican rival: "George Bush went to a nice, fancy high school like I did, but I came out of my fancy high school asking the question, `Why can't everybody have a school like this?'"

In a different primary race, Hillary Clinton made Obama's infamous poor bowling skills the butt of an April Fool's joke. "I'm challenging Senator Obama to a bowl-off," Clinton said on April Fools' Day in 2008. "A bowling night, the winner take all. I'll even spot him two frames. It's time for his campaign to get out of the gutter and allow all the pins to be counted."

President Obama's sport is basketball. As the Democratic presidential candidate, he famously bowled a measly 37 in seven frames while campaigning at the Pleasant Valley Recreation Center in Pennsylvania in March 2008, and made matters worse when he told Jay Leno in 2009 that his bowling was "like the Special Olympics or something."

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama vowed to tear down the White House bowling alley and replace it with a basketball court if elected. But four years later, the bowling lanes are still there and are getting plenty of use.