'Moneyball' Godfather Bill James Tackles Politics In Super PAC Age

'Moneyball' Genius Calculates How Outspent Campaigns Can Beat Rich Rivals

WASHINGTON -- A political candidate being dramatically outspent by his opponent has few options. He can pin his hopes on a strong debate performance, dig up dirt on the opposition, or cut a particularly buzz-worthy television ad.

Or he can do what other industries, led by Major League Baseball, have done before: worship at the altar of Bill James.

James is the high priest of baseball number-crunching. In 1977, he began publishing the "Bill James Baseball Abstracts," which paved the way for "sabermetrics," a system of statistical analysis that fundamentally transformed the sport. In 2006, Time magazine named James one of the 100 most influential people in the world. If Billy Beane, manager of the perennially low-budget Oakland Athletics, is the face of "Moneyball" -- the ethos of small-budget teams competing against well-funded opponents -- James is its brain.

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.

That's because much of what James has to offer candidates facing financial deficits is quirky and unconventional. Often it involves throwing the traditional campaign playbook out the window.

"If you're outspent in a campaign, what you absolutely cannot do is start a pissing contest, pardon my French," James wrote in an email. "If you're outspent and you start talking about your opponent being corrupt and senile, you're in BIG trouble, because he's got a lot more guns than you have."

Instead of going negative, he advised, a candidate should do the exact opposite. "Talk about your opponent in the nicest terms that you CAN, in order to take certain weapons away from him," James wrote. "If you're speaking well of your opponent and your opponent is savaging you, there is a chance he comes off looking like an ass and you can win the election."

Beyond that, James suggested a candidate run on a platform distinct from either major party (anti-drug war, pro-gay rights). Or a candidate could obsess over an issue completely off the beaten path. As an example, he highlighted deer-related car crashes in his home state of Kansas. "No one talks about people hitting deer with their cars as a political issue, but in Kansas" it could work, he said.

"If a candidate for office starts talking about thinning the deer population or investing in barriers to reduce the number of deer on the highways, the other side will probably just ignore him, because they're not going to know what to say about it," he said. "But there is a chance that the issue will resonate with voters in an unexpected way."

It may seem like a far-fetched theory from a guy who has spent his career crunching data from the diamond.

"In Kansas, we are pretty anti-abortion and anti-Planned Parenthood," said Burdett "Bird" Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who happens to live down the street from James. "I'm not sure we are going to go for contraception for deer."

But, as is usually the case with James, a closer look at the numbers suggests that the unconventional may be true. According to the Kansas Department of Transportation's latest data, deer were responsible for 15 percent of all car crashes in 2011 -- 9,153 crashes in total. Twice, people were killed; 293 times they were injured.

"It is a popular subject in Kansas," conceded Rex McCommon, a Transportation Department official.


Unlike baseball, where statisticians pore over everything from earned run average (traditional metrics) to batting average on balls in play (sabermetric bliss), politics has seen limited breakthroughs from obsessive data analysis.

Democratic operatives established the company Catalist in 2006 to develop a comprehensive portrait of voters, from geographic locations to commercial preferences. The opposition research outfit American Bridge is building a massive video database recording Republican candidates' every utterance. But even as information is becoming more readily available, there has been little innovation.

"There aren't any good databases" in politics, said Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus, an organization devoted to studying sabermetrics. "You would need like the last 50, 100 Senate campaigns. ... You would need the full books. Like this was the money. This is what they spent it on. You have to create categories: mail, personal appearances, television ads. And then you need to break up the television ads: positive ads, negative ads. How valuable was it? How valuable is going to the local diner? How valuable is the ad that says my opponent is a nimrod? There are so many things that you would need. ... I don't know anyone who is doing that."

Washington is uniquely behind the curve. Goldstein said he and his colleagues have been approached by a number of industries buying into the gospel of data. Hollywood, in particular, is trying to figure out better methods of turning a movie into a blockbuster. Political campaigns have not yet made that jump.

Part of the reason is that there aren't regular barometers to measure success and failure, or to apply lessons learned. In baseball, teams play 162 games each season. In Hollywood, movies come out weekly. In politics, congressional elections happen every two years and presidential contests every four.

"It's not as easy to test your ideas out and learn from your mistakes," said Nate Silver, The New York Times polling guru whose roots are in Baseball Prospectus, a website publisher devoted to sabremetrics. "Meanwhile, politics is intrinsically a somewhat reality-denying enterprise and a business in which candidates and campaign officials compete on the basis of how much they can spin the truth," he explained. "Anything that threatens to connect political operatives with reality is therefore likely to be viewed with some suspicion."

That said, a few campaigns have executed James' theories about electoral politics -- with promising effects.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has wrung political benefits out of seemingly minor issues throughout his career. Phil Singer, a former Schumer aide, recalled how Schumer campaigned on reducing the cost of breakfast cereal in his 1996 House race, going so far as to demand a Justice Department anti-trust investigation. Schumer still lists his breakfast cereal crusade among his career accomplishments.

"In any given campaign situation, the goal is to reach the people who are most likely to vote, but don't follow the race on a minute-to-minute basis," said Singer. "And to connect with that group, the campaign needs to identify issues in their daily lives that will resonate with them even if it may not be part of the national zeitgeist. This is true if you are spending more than your opponent or being outspent by your opponent."

More pertinent to 2012 is James' theory that outspent candidates would be better off going nice. At a recent briefing with reporters at Bloomberg View, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell made that point when discussing why many Democrats, including former President Bill Clinton, declined to follow the Obama campaign in criticizing Mitt Romney's private equity career.

"He is not off message," said Rendell, also former head of the Democratic National Committee. "Bill Clinton is an extraordinarily smart politician. ... This is something that I did as DNC chair. You don't demonize your opponent because it builds your credibility. ... Bill Clinton is going to be lights out in October when it counts. And the average undecided voter is going to remember that he didn't trash Governor Romney, that he said he was a decent guy with good qualifications."

The most innovative politician when it comes to adopting data-driven campaign theories may be Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R). As Sasha Issenberg documented in his book "Rick Perry and His Eggheads: Inside the Brainiest Political Operation in America," the classic shoot-from-the-hip governor turned over his political operation to a pair of Yale professors.

The head of that team, Perry's longtime adviser Dave Carney, had been dismayed by the absence of market research in his profession. In an interview with The Huffington Post, he recalled how in Florida, the Republican Party sent a welcome note and a voter registration card to every Republican voter who moved into the state. But party officials never compared registration rates from counties where the notes and cards were sent to those where they weren't. They simply sent them everywhere. Conducting that test could have saved money, but no one thought to do it.

In Texas, Carney and the rest of the egghead crew decided to conduct those types of experiments and came away with several conclusions. Introductory television ads -- those that come early in the campaign to frame the candidate -- were ineffective. Traditional campaign expenditures for lawn signs, direct mail, robocalls, newspaper ads and editorial board visits were often not worth the cost, either.

Notoriously thrifty, Perry saved $3 million in his 2010 primary campaign against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) by forgoing those functions. Instead, he used the money to set up what Issenberg called "a virtual network" of "home headquarters" in which volunteers were paid $20 for signing up friends and neighbors to vote for the governor. Perry ended up defeating Hutchinson by 20 percentage points.

"The biggest lesson we learned is that a lot of the testimony, propaganda and assertions made by vendors and campaign operatives about the success of their work and their product and their competitor's products are baseless and don't hold up to scrutiny," Carney said. "A lot of times, campaigns confuse motion for progress and we end up doing a lot of things that we did in the past."


For all of the data culled from his gubernatorial campaign, however, Perry proved a flop as a presidential candidate. He raised nearly $20 million, spent virtually all of it, and won a grand total of zero delegates.

"Our field experiments were for a Texas race. The results would not have transferred one-to-one," explained Carney. "But we did use some of the findings, although we never had the lead time to implement them to a significant degree."

A presidential election, indeed, requires a different type of campaign than a run for the governorship of the nation's second-largest state. There are different constituencies to which a candidate must tend and -- certainly in Perry's case -- a tighter political calendar in which to operate. And so, the question facing other 2012 candidates is not just whether deep statistical analysis can work for their campaigns, but how fast it can have an effect.

In his book, "The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First," Jonah Keri examined how the Tampa Bay Rays -- a perennial doormat in baseball's toughest division -- became one of the best-run and most successful franchises in the game.

"They don't participate in the same game as the Yankees and the Red Sox do," Keri explained in an interview, "and so they had to think differently."

Instead of pursuing big-name free agents, the team's management placed value in underappreciated aspects of the game, like defensive proficiency. Mainly, however, they invested their limited resources in unearthing young talent in the draft.

An underfunded political campaign and the Tampa Bay Rays "could not be more analogous," Keri said. And just like a team putting heavy stock in a strong farm system, party operatives would be smart to focus on the foundations of long-term success.

"The one thing I could think of is to have a very pro-immigration stance," Keri said. "Even for Obama, there has been a record number of deportations. ... And he is supposed to be a kinder, gentler liberal. ... The first presidential candidate who came out and did this could attract a wave of support from that community."

Keri lives in Colorado, a swing state with a large Latino population, but also a history of anti-immigrant sentiment. Announcing support for more lenient immigration policy carries certain risks, he conceded. But it's a bet that sabermetric adherents would make.

Even then, however, it's unclear whether the benefits of launching a full-on Latino courtship would be felt in the 2012 election. The New York Times recently reported that members of that community aren't registering to vote at a pace reflecting population growth.

For underfunded campaigns in need of a quick boost, attention has turned away from far-reaching policy proposals like immigration reform and toward campaign operational features.

Democrats have invested heavily in get-out-the-vote operations. The union super PAC, Workers' Voice, has made it an almost exclusive focus, while the Obama campaign has sought to soothe supporter anxiety over Romney's fundraising superiority by noting how much further ahead they are in ground-game operations.

The strategy is a logical extension of the Obama campaign's grassroots operation in 2008, as well as labor's traditional role in organizing. It is also contains elements of what Carney and his fellow eggheads did in Texas, where they relied heavily on person-to-person contact.

"We are trying to build a new paradigm, where networks of co-workers, families and neighbors talking to each other -- both online and offline -- counter the endless stream of negative TV ads," explained Eddie Vale, a spokesman for Workers' Voice.

But while Vale insisted his group's plans are both short-term and long-term -- voter contacts done in 2012 can be repeated once more in 2014 -- both he and others in the progressive movement have yet to display a willingness to think as unconventionally as James advises. Moreover, if the expectation is that the Democratic Party could use these means to simply squeak out a victory, James offered skepticism.

James likened the idea of trying to win an election through get-out-the-vote drives as "analogous to trying to win a pennant race by doing better in the close games." A team that won 75 games and lost 87 over the course of a season could get to 90 wins if they changed their win-loss record in one-run games from 26-29 to 41-14.

"It can happen," James said. "But it's a lousy strategy."

"When people disagree with you, what you ultimately have to do is persuade people to agree with you -- period," he added. "You can't ultimately dodge defeat by winning close elections."

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