Myths of Presidential Campaign Moneyball
posted at 11:45 am 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:
— Josh Kraushaar (@HotlineJosh) June 15, 2012
@HotlineJosh James’ advice was not about the presidential actually… was about smaller races
— Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) June 15, 2012
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.