One-Run Strategies

As someone who became an avid fan of pioneering baseball analyst Bill James in about 1980, I was naturally drawn to Sam Stein’s HuffPost piece suggesting that the perspectives inspiring Moneyball might have applications to electoral politics. But as the example of Rick Perry’s “genius” staff shows, any old “statistical” or “scientific” approach to electoral strategy won’t necessarily work, and it’s easy to misapply principles that make sense in a business or sports context to a very different arena.

To be specific, here’s how Sam quotes James on the perennial topic of “persuasion” versus “mobilization” strategies:

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.”

I realize this is a short snippet from what may have been a long interview, but the quote reflects precisely the kind of dogmatism James fought against among baseball “experts.” He seems to be analogizing GOTV to the “one-run-strategies”–e.g., sacrifice bunts, base-stealing–often deployed by baseball managers to give them an advantage in close games, at the large opportunity cost of giving up “outs” and thus the chance to maximize the big innings that produce more wins over time.

But as James himself acknowledged in his baseball writings, one-run strategies do make sense in certain contexts: the late innings of tied games, the dead-ball era when total offensive production was low, and in spacious ballparks where big innings are rare.

Given partisan polarization, the relatively low number of true “independents” and of true “undecided voters” at the moment, and the relatively even strength of the two parties, the 2012 election may well be the equivalent of a game tied in the eight inning in old Forbes Field at the height of the dead-ball era. It’s a context where a one-run strategy–or in politics, a heavy emphasis on GOTV and voter mobilization generally–may make perfect sense if the alternative is sacrificing the maximum “base” vote to a high-cost, high-risk effort to persuade a tiny segment of swing voters. And that’s particularly true if the number or “persuadable” swing voters is unusually low–as Alan Abramowitz has shown is the case this year–and the characteristics that “persuadable” swing voters are looking for–a clear message, a “mainstream” agenda, and resistance to the opposition’s extremism–are the same as those necessary to mobilize “the base.”

It’s just not a context where the “big bang theory” of seeking big swings in the “score” is an intelligent investment of resources. So will all due respect to Bill James, I don’t think his advice should be taken by political strategists, particularly that big-time baseball fan David Axelrod.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.