Moneyball, the 2012 Campaign, and the Limits of Political Sabermetrics

My wife and I watched the film, Moneyball a few nights back and while I was bothered by the unnecessary profanity, it was overall, good.

It’s not just about baseball. Moneyball tells the story of how general manager, Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics, stood up against the conventional wisdom of his profession and eventually experienced vindication. The feel-good formula on which the film was built has worked in Hollywood for generations.

To the horror of his scouts and manager, Beane relied on the data generated by Paul DePodesta (called Peter Brand in the film), the holder of an Economics degree from Yale, who was a disciple of Bill James, the inventor of Sabermetrics.

Sabermetrics looks beyond conventional measurements of baseball players’ value. Offensively, for example, Sabermetrics produces a clear number showing, no matter what a batter’s average or home run totals, how often he gets on base and scores runs. Defensively, it generates a number that shows how many runs he helps to prevent from being scored by opposing teams.

Sabermetrics is what has enabled Beane, in two different seasons at Oakland, a “small market team” whose payroll is always dwarfed by teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Phillies, and others, to piece together teams of affordable youngsters, has-beens, and wannabes to win lots of regular season games and go into post-season playoffs.

To do this, Sabermetrics looks past what generations of scouts have called the “eye test,” what they see (or want to see), and a belief that “baseball men” have gut instincts about players’ abilities not available to outside analysts. It presents a cold-eyed, accurate picture of how players who aren’t stars and won’t command big free agency money, can score just enough runs to win just enough ballgames to win championships. It’s elegant and minimalist and it works.

I watched Moneyball the day after reading Fareed Zakaria’s blog post, The coming political drone warfare. Zakaria remarks that statistician Nate Silver, the political equivalent of Beane’s wunderkind DePodesta, accurately projected the outcome of the presidential race in all fifty states, not with his gut or any eye test, but with cold, hard facts, many of which the political consultants with their years of personal experience simply ignored.

It’s pretty clear that both the Obama and Romney teams played this kind of “small ball” as well, though the Obama team played it much better and more extensively. Not only did the Obama team have a superior “ground game,” with 800 field offices to Romney’s 300, they also understood that a campaign doesn’t need to win the big arguments: Just knit together a coalition of 50%-plus-one on the bases of small arguments on smaller issues aimed directly at, not just demographic groups, but individuals’ email in-boxes, and you can win.

Romney tried to do this. But, at the same time, the prevailing voices of his team clearly overestimated the number of votes they would get from their target groups. Simply put, the instincts and eyeballs of Romney campaign consultants lied to them. They were in denial. They couldn’t imagine that the Obama campaign could, in the midst of an ongoing recession, a sluggish economy, and extensive dislike for the Affordable Care Act, appeal to anybody outside of “the 47%” they implicitly regarded as untouchable for them. Throughout the campaign, they demonstrated by their action, advertising, and rhetoric, that 47% was the maximum constituency Obama could reach.

Both campaigns then, were guided by kinds of Sabermetrics, Obama’s more well informed and clear-eyed, as you’d expect from the candidate whose 2008 team dubbed him, “No Drama Obama,” Romney’s more guided by the guts of conventional, experienced consultants.

Zakaria writes: “I think the…fascinating takeaway from this debate [between the gut instincts of conventional consultants on the one hand and the numbers arguments of statisticians on the other] is that the combination of the sophisticated statistical analysis…coupled with micro-targeting of voters, is the future of politics. Why? Because it allows campaigns to spend money incredibly efficiently, for example by placing ads in TV shows that certain audiences are much more likely to watch.”

Zakaria is right in foreseeing the elevation of the statistician in the ranks of political punditry and the resultant use of what he calls political “drone warfare, where what you see outside is merely a shadow, while what is really happening is going on deep inside some control room where a bunch of geeks are analyzing and manipulating data with the latest technology.”

You can bet that in coming years, campaigns of both parties will hire armies of statisticians who will allow for ever-more refined pitches to specific demographic groups and individuals. Campaigning will likely be about eking out a 50%-plus-one majority.

That’s fine in baseball. In baseball, as in other sports, a win is a win. All a team is trying to do is be sufficiently better than the competition to squeak, eke, or crawl to a championship. The only reward sought is a trophy (and a lot of money, of course).

But for the presidential candidate who wins office, the election is just the end of the beginning. Then the hard part starts: getting things done. And that’s always harder for presidents who haven’t swung for the fences by talking about big ideas and pushing for majorities in Congress that allow presidents to put their big ideas into effect. (President Obama, by the way, made one robocall for a congressional candidate in all of 2012.)

President Obama may be right in asserting, as he did yesterday in his press conference, that his re-election was a mandate from the American people to pursue debt reduction with a combination of budget cuts and tax increases on the wealthiest Americans. But his “small ball” campaign makes that argument harder for him to sell. In political terms, a president who wins with 55% of the vote and helps his (or, hopefully one day, her) party win Congress, has an indisputable mandate.

Sabermetrics is great in baseball. It wins elections in politics. But, after twenty-eight years as a leader myself, I have learned that you need to win or gain the support of a lot more than 50%-plus-one if you’re going to undertake new initiatives. You need the cushion of support that comes when you dare to reach out beyond your supposed “natural constituency.” Neither candidate took that dare this year.

The lessons of victory and loss are often overlearned. I hope that the lesson from this election to Republicans and Democrats alike will be that statisticians are helpful and that the advice of political consultants who command big salaries and direct the expenditure of massive sums for advertising that may or may not make a difference in how people vote, is less than infallible. But if Sabermetricians become the kings of political consultancy, don’t look for Washington, D.C. to shake off its dysfunctional gridlock any time soon.

[I blog regularly at my personal site, here.]

Author: MARK DANIELS

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