Political Animal


June 15, 2012 12:19 PM One-Run Strategies

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • DAY on June 15, 2012 12:32 PM:

    Today it seems the Steinbrenner Method has come to politics: Simply BUY the Worlds Series Championship.

    Perhaps a better analogy would be comparing politics to chess.

  • BillFromPA on June 15, 2012 12:45 PM:

    I just don't see this being that close. 'Wooden' doesn't come close to describing Willard on the stump, he's genuinely out of touch with the realities of the 99%, Obama will eat his lunch in the debates and while no VP selection is going to help the repugs much, there's a lot of potential trouble for them there as well. My biggest concern is a Euro-Zone metldown cratering our economy but even that can be spun as an anti-austerity lesson. I won't relax until Fox 'News' calls it for Obama, but I don't see a long night in early Nov. either.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on June 15, 2012 12:59 PM:

    Republicans are going to carpet bomb. Democrats will do surgical pin pricks.

    And guess which is going to win?

  • DisgustedWithItAll on June 15, 2012 1:00 PM:

    @Bill: That's the sort of thinking that will give rise to you uttering "President Romney" next January.

  • low-tech cyclist on June 15, 2012 1:07 PM:

    IMHO, you should be trying to persuade people all the time, except for maybe the last couple of weeks when it comes down to rallying the faithful.

    I expected a lot more on this score from Obama, who was quite eloquent during the 2008 campaign, and who originally drew our notice with his 2004 keynote speech. But during 2009 and 2010, he decided he was Senate Majority Leader or something, and spent too much time coddling the Gang of Six, and not enough time winning the argument. Similarly with 2011, when his goal seemed to be to win the Only Adult In The Room Award, rather than winning the argument.

    It's really important to draw the big distinctions between what we're for and what they're for, and to make sure everyone knows why we think our way is better and their way sucks. You have to be doing that all the time; there's no offseason from it. But Obama and the Dems seem to treat most of the time between elections as an offseason.

  • gus on June 15, 2012 1:41 PM:

    The margins are what Clinton seemed to be willing to play. Maybe the 1996 election is the only best example of it; it entailed a lot of the “small bore” politics.

    In 2008, I recall thinking that H. Clinton was approaching her candidacy with the margins in mind and would possibly approach her presidency similar.

    Granted I am to read about baseball and to not try and apply it to politics. But, given how obsessed the media is on swing states and trying to figure out which one state is the difference maker, and that supposed “vaunted” Karl Rove micro-marketing campaign that took presidential electioneering to a district-by-district level, it seems like trying to win by just enough has become a staple of presidential politics, even more than for any other elective office.

    Howard Dean’s 50 State Strategy doesn’t fit into this way of running a campaign does it? I thought it was the opposite of it settling for Just Enough, but, this political stuff is the math of politics. Bleeeeh!

    From a more visceral campaigning angle, in 2008, Obama had to campaign against not only McCain but also Bush/Cheney and Hillary Clinton (and by proxy Bill Clinton). He did an impressively good job at making that work. That is one thing that heartens me. The 2008 campaign was run against 3 opponents for a long duration and it outlasted the barrage.

    True this is a different year, with crap circumstances and too many extra influences giving advice (not to mention all the voices in the Noise Machine and Super PAC monies.). I’m still of the opinion that the GOP’s and Mitt’s weaknesses will play a large role in doing them in. It is too bubbling hot with too many variables to have a well-oiled machine work properly. Think: Donald Trump as a surrogate to see one of the things I expect to more common; it is nearly institutionalized craziness.

  • abc on June 15, 2012 2:06 PM:

    The Moneyball reference is apt. With the wealthy and Wall Street types willing to kick in $1 billion as seed money to get a much larger reward of a 20% reduction in their tax rate, Obama will be outspent.

    So he has to decide how to spend wisely. Going ad-for-ad in the sleaze war with the advertising liars and issue "framers" Romney has employed is not a good use of funds. For one thing, Obama gets fairly free media coverage anyway since he's President. And as he noted yesterday, how many voters are going to change their votes because of the ads with the out-of-context quotes and the guy with the "scary voice?" So he's best off spending more on GOTV organizing to get the base out.

  • Linkmeister on June 15, 2012 2:58 PM:

    You do remember the one-run strategy employed by Bill Mazeroski at Forbes Field in the 1960 World Series, don't you?

  • c u n d gulag on June 15, 2012 3:01 PM:

    In the debates - if there's more than one, since Mitt won't want more than that, one guy will hit a few HR's, and the other, will K a lot.

    My bet is, Obama hits a bunch of HR's, and Mitt wiff's at least 4 times, for "The Golden Sombrero" - and no, get your mind out of the gutter - it's a baseball term, NOT a sexual one like "Dirty Sanchez."

  • Doug on June 15, 2012 10:02 PM:

    A thought: just because someone responds as "leans Republican", doesn't mean they WILL vote Republican in November.
    Nor would trying to attract such voters mean that a Democratic candidate has to "move to the center" in order to get those votes, but it WOULD require presenting the result of the Republican opponent's policies in the starkest terms.
    I still firmly believe that Romney will HAVE to accept some right-wing Tbagger as his VP nominee to mollify his "base" (and what an excellent description!). Democrats, from the President on down, will need to continually demand, not ask, but DEMAND, to know just how a Romney administration will differ from GWB's.
    Watching WIllard stumbling around trying to answer that by NOT answering it should be good for at least 100 EVs...