Myths of presidential campaign moneyball

posted at 8:36 pm on June 15, 2012 by Karl

The HuffPo’s Sam Stein solicits political advice from Bill James, the “Godfather of Moneyball”:

He hasn’t dabbled much in politics before. But in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows for unlimited campaign spending by corporations and unions, James’ analytical approach has become more relevant to the political conversation.

The Obama campaign and allied Democrats have begun preaching “Moneyball”-like theories about how to compete against the onslaught of conservative super PAC spending this election cycle. But it’s unclear whether they have time to put those ideas into practice or the ability and willingness to undertake such a dramatic shift.

Some Twitter exchanges involving National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar are instructive here:

 

 

Surprisingly, Chuck Todd is correct. James is primarily discussing state and local campaigns. Most of his advice does not scale to a presidential campaign.

James advises a candidate who can be outspent to not go negative. Even assuming for the sake of argument this applied to a presidential campaign, Mitt Romney is the candidate saying Pres. Obama is likeable but in over his head; Obama will be the one painting Romney as a cruel plutocrat.

James suggested a candidate run on a platform distinct from either major party or on an issue completely off the beaten path. Ask Ron Paul or Gary Johnson how well that works. More on point, as political scientist Lynn Varveck has noted (and written The Message Matters about), barring a war, presidential elections are mostly about the economy — if that issue helps you, you run on it. If the economy works against you, find an issue on which you are closer to most voters and your opponent is constrained by an unpopular position — but good luck with that. Elections like 1976, where Jimmy Carter could campaign against the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate ethical malaise are exceptions, not the rule.

Indeed, Moneyball tends to fail at the macro level as a workable theory for presidential campaigns. Those who have read or seen Moneyball know that the reason a low-budget team could compete with the big spenders was that major league baseball scouting was sytematically misjudging talent. MLB is a system more akin to the political era where presidential candidates were selected in those fabled smoke-filled back rooms at political conventions than the primary era, which is driven by candidates and their consultants. The so-called (and much-debated) “invisible primary” is the closest modern politics comes to scouting talent; otherwise, the talent scouts itself.

Furthermore, as political scientist John Sides notes, the sort of disparities in campaign spending that make a difference in a presidential campaign are uncommon. Notably, the two examples he cites — Bush vs. Gore and Obama vs. McCain — did not involve an incumbent. Sides also notes that campaign ads matter more when the candidates are unfamiliar. If Pres. Obama is outspent, it cannot be ignored that he is the president and has ~100% name recognition. In addition, the president can do things like get loads of free media coverage for a supposedly “major” address that is supposed to “reset” or “reboot” his economic message, but in fact turns out to be an overlong rehash of the same ol’ stuff.

For a non-presidential example, consider the recent recall campaign waged against WI Gov. Scott Walker. Whether Republicans outspent Democrats by less than 2-to-1 or whether you accept the bogus figure of 7-to-1, political scientists will report that campaign spending matters more in nonpartisan contests such as referenda and less so in highly partisan contexts.

The Wisconsin example is important because Stein’s piece is really about advancing the left-wing talking point that Republicans are going to use spending permitted under the Citizens United decision to buy elections, effectively “stealing” them from Democrats. It is about trying to fool journalists like Josh Kraushaar (whose actual reporting is usually quite good) into thinking of Obama as the Oakland A’s. It is about the progressives’ attempts to delegitimize GOP victories before they are even won. It just doesn’t have a factual basis.

This post was promoted from GreenRoom to HotAir.com.
To see the comments on the original post, look here.


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It is about the progressives’ attempts to delegitimize GOP victories before they are even won. It just doesn’t have a factual basis.

Facts schmacts

Rio Linda Refugee on June 15, 2012 at 8:52 PM

Here ya’ go: let Obama to continue to court and spark with Hollywood, homosexual activism, illegal aliens, racists and other Marxists and watch the GOP slide across home base this November.

Lourdes on June 15, 2012 at 8:57 PM

The whole concept of Moneyball is a crock. How many championships have the Oakland A’s won under Billy Beane again?

Mike Honcho on June 15, 2012 at 8:58 PM

The whole concept of Moneyball is a crock. How many championships have the Oakland A’s won under Billy Beane again?

Mike Honcho on June 15, 2012 at 8:58 PM

The Red Sox adopted his method and won the World Series two years later.

Fail.

fossten on June 15, 2012 at 9:13 PM

The Red Sox adopted his method and won the World Series two years later.

Yes they did. With the third higest payroll in baseball.

Epic Fail.

Mike Honcho on June 15, 2012 at 9:22 PM

Here ya’ go: let Obama to continue to court and spark with Hollywood, homosexual activism, illegal aliens, racists and other Marxists and watch the GOP slide across home base this November.

Lourdes on June 15, 2012 at 8:57 PM

…I hope the GOP goes in standing up, if they have to slide in with this goof…that’s not a good thing!

KOOLAID2 on June 15, 2012 at 9:41 PM

Quality of postings here is definitely on the rise. Keep it up.

crosspatch on June 15, 2012 at 9:41 PM

Those who have read or seen Moneyball know that the reason a low-budget team could compete with the big spenders was that major league baseball scouting was sytematically misjudging talent

It was about a lot more than that. The old criteria for weighting data were changed. F’instance, walks took on a much more weighted role as did strikeouts and nonproductive outs, the ability to bunt was disregarded as a plus, because it yielded an out, and extra base hits took on even more weight. It was all about having players who could extend an inning. Example: Nick Swisher, who had a great eye at the plate and drew a lot of walks. Keeping the team at bat in an inning was a major goal. High risk ventures, like hit and run, were frowned upon.

a capella on June 15, 2012 at 10:11 PM

The Red Sox adopted his method and won the World Series two years later.

CORRECTION: The Red Sox didn’t have the third highest payroll in baseball in 2004, they actually had the second highest. That’s what I get for working from memory.

The Red Sox are hardly the definition of a small market, perpetually cash strapped “Moneyball” team. They spend big money to acquire top tier talent and that talent gives them a competitive edge. Furthermore their deep pockets allow them to retain that talent year in and year out. The Oakland A’s could only dream of having that luxury.

Mike Honcho on June 15, 2012 at 10:26 PM

Yes they did. With the third higest payroll in baseball.

Epic Fail.

Mike Honcho on June 15, 2012 at 9:22 PM

Red herring, but thanks for playing. They DID adopt this method, and they did win the WS two years later.

Epic Fail.

fossten on June 15, 2012 at 11:59 PM

Red herring, but thanks for playing. They DID adopt this method, and they did win the WS two years later.

Epic Fail.

fossten on June 15, 2012 at 11:59 PM

And the BoSox went so far as to have Bill James as an advisor. Although it is true that Billy Beane doesn’t look nearly as hot now as he did when the book came out.

HidetheDecline on June 16, 2012 at 12:24 AM

Aretha Franklin gives us the inside scoop on what was happening at that Wintour/SJP partay!!

Aretha Franklin just left Sarah Jessica Parker’s $40,000 a-plate dinner party … after spending just 20 MINUTES INSIDE … that’s $2,000-per minute!!!!!

Aretha — who was the first to arrive to the Barack Obama fundraiser — was also the first to the leave.

On her way out, Ms. Franklin told us the food was impressive … “chicken with a mustard sauce, diced tomatoes and a lot of relishes on the side of the plate.”

She added, “Very tasty.”

SouthernGent on June 16, 2012 at 1:06 AM

Red herring, but thanks for playing. They DID adopt this method, and they did win the WS two years later.

Epic Fail.

The Red Sox DID outspend 28 other teams that year (2007 as well). It is hardly irrelevant to their success and if you believe otherwise then you’re literally too stupid to insult. Furthermore if wildly outspending other MLB teams constitutes a “Moneyball” strategy, then the New York Yankees constitute one hell of a “Moneyball” team.

Lastly, the Oakland A’s haven’t finished above .500 in five years. Something that shouldn’t happen if the statistical, highly scientific methods of baseball analysis were as foolproof as their advocates claim.

Have a nice day.

Mike Honcho on June 16, 2012 at 2:24 AM

Obama is not likeable. Tired of this retarded notion.

The guy is detestable.

But if it works to for Romney describe him as likeable, go ahead.

But it’s a bunch of crap tho.

I am wary of it…

Sherman1864 on June 16, 2012 at 6:41 AM

Myths of presidential campaign moneyball

BigSven don’t know nuttin’ about no money ball……

But, he do know that Obama is one big sticky tarball…and anyone associated with him will ‘rue the day’ they latched onto this guy.

History will not be kind to Mr. Obama, worst president ever, and all associated with him.

BigSven on June 16, 2012 at 7:31 AM

Lastly, the Oakland A’s haven’t finished above .500 in five years. Something that shouldn’t happen if the statistical, highly scientific methods of baseball analysis were as foolproof as their advocates claim.

Have a nice day.

Mike Honcho on June 16, 2012 at 2:24 AM

Well, that’s mostly because the 29 other teams are now starting to judge talent in the same way the A’s did in the late 90s/early 2000s. It shows up in the draft and free agent signings, and coupled with other teams’ ability to spend more money, it blunts Beane’s impact in Oakland.

Moneyball changed the game, but it only gave Oakland the advantage for a short time before everyone else caught up with it.

If Bill James wanted an apt comparison of Moneyball to politics, he should look at social media. Six years ago, the Democrats were using the evolving social media scene to re-establish themselves after getting kicked up and down the field in three straight election cycles (and four out of six). Today Republicans are starting to master the art – and it helps when your opponents are incompetent.

Red Cloud on June 16, 2012 at 7:53 AM

Lastly, the Oakland A’s haven’t finished above .500 in five years. Something that shouldn’t happen if the statistical, highly scientific methods of baseball analysis were as foolproof as their advocates claim.

Have a nice day.

Mike Honcho on June 16, 2012 at 2:24 AM

Well, that’s mostly because the 29 other teams are now starting to judge talent in the same way the A’s did in the late 90s/early 2000s. It shows up in the draft and free agent signings, and coupled with other teams’ ability to spend more money, it blunts Beane’s impact in Oakland.

Moneyball changed the game, but it only gave Oakland the advantage for a short time before everyone else caught up with it.

Red Cloud on June 16, 2012 at 7:53 AM

Yep, it’s as if Branch Rickey and Earl Weaver never existed. I especially found Joe Morgan’s frothing at the mouth about the book amusing, since Cincinnati’s acquisition of Morgan from the Astros was a classic Moneyball-type trade, i.e. get a player who’s undervalued due to extraneous playing conditions (i,e, the Astrodome depressing his BA) and put him in an environment where his skills shine. The jackasses who said that Jackie Robinson would never be acquired by Beane evinced an utter lack of understanding of the system.

ebrown2 on June 16, 2012 at 9:06 AM

Red Cloud, ebrown2, blink, et al,

Here’s what it all boils down to:

- The Oakland A’s had spectacular drafts in the late 90’s and early 00’s.
- They used the talent they stockpiled in those drafts to build a highly talented and competitive team.
- They managed to pry open a window of contention from 2002 to 2006.
- Following 2006, their window of contention closed and they became a struggling, subpar franchise.

Now my question to you is what exactly makes the Oakland A’s unique? How exactly do they differ from countless other teams in the pre-”Moneyball” era who built through the draft, achieved considerable success and ultimately entered a period of decline?

Nothing really, other than the notion that statistical analysis somehow gives them a competitive advantage when it comes to talent evaluation and payroll. These claims are laughable given that the Oakland A’s have not been able to rebuild via the draft and free agency or be competitive with other small market teams (let alone larger market teams). The A’s are on pace this year to finish below .500. If they do, it will be the sixth consecutive year in which they have failed to finish with a winning record.

As for the argument that other teams have copied their methods and this is blunting their success, well not all teams have copied their methods. Furthermore this might impact free agency, but the A’s would still be in a good position to rebuild via the draft since draft positioning is determined by a team’s won/loss record, and the A’s haven’t been winning much lately. Their statistical analysis should be able to identify enough quality picks for the team to rebuild but they haven’t been able to. So I’m not buying that one either.

“Moneyball” is the baseball equivalent of alchemy. I can understand its appeal to baseball execs seeking to change base payrolls into World Series gold, but the reality is that it just doesn’t work as advertised. You’ve gotta spend money to win.

Mike Honcho on June 16, 2012 at 4:47 PM