Political moneyball: Smart strategy, not cash, wins races

Politics is replete with sports metaphors. A great debate performance can be a “home run” for a candidate, causing his opponent to be up “against the ropes,” before he is delivered a “knockout blow” by a great commercial. In 2008, Mitt Romney became famous for talking about first, second and third place primary showings as “gold, silver and bronze,” a nod to his own Olympic back story.

It makes sense, though, because politics and team sports are very similar. Both involve groups of people working together in an attempt to win something. Both involve a variety of egomaniacs who don’t want to be on the same team but have to deal with each other. Both see great come-from-behind wins and epic collapses.

And both require money to be successful.

The difference between politics and sports is that in sports, particularly in baseball, those running the system have figured out that money by itself doesn’t buy anything and that smart evaluation, analysis, strategy and tactics are what actually wins. Politics, and the politically minded public, has not.

By now, most people are familiar with the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis.

For those who have not read it, or watched the film based on it, the story is simple. It follows Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane as he attempts to use an analytical, evidence-based system known as sabermetrics in an attempt to build a championship baseball team on a very small budget.

In the 2002 baseball season, Beane’s approach allowed the A’s, who spent roughly $41 million, to be competitive with teams like the New York Yankees, who spent roughly $125 million. That year they won a record 20 consecutive games and were one of baseball’s best teams.

What the story was really about, though, was the system. Baseball believed in two things: money buying wins through marquis players and the savant-like brilliance of scouts. Old hands in the baseball industry put stock in “tools” and “attitude” and “intangibles,” and teams like the Yankees paid top dollar for what were perceived to be the best players.

The sabermetric approach used a cold, scientific evaluation of the game and its players to evaluate talent and find its real value. Rather than buying players, Beane and his assistants began to buy wins, by picking undervalued players who didn’t excel in traditional statistics but could get on base and contribute to runs being scored.

In politics, we are still operating under the old system. Everyone, from the campaigns themselves, to the consultants, to the media, to the voters, believes that money buys elections. But everyone – as they were in baseball – is wrong, and that notion needs to die.

We have a great example of this in Maine. In the 2010 Republican primary, then-Mayor Paul LePage spent only a couple hundred thousand dollars, and ski-mogul Les Otten spent about $2 million. The result was a thunderous victory for LePage, beating the money candidate by double-digits.

This is hardly an isolated incident. If money bought electoral wins, we would all be talking about the Perot economy of the 1990s; Meg Whitman would be governor of California; and the dozens of wealthy self-funders who failed miserably two years ago would now be walking the halls of Congress.

The problem in politics is much the same as it was in baseball. Everyone sees the Yankees do well every year; the underfunded teams try to play the same game as the big money guys (and fail accordingly); and everyone assumes that money equals success.

To the contrary, a good candidate with the right message and a smart campaign can easily wipe out another candidate with an overwhelming financial advantage. Money can’t buy you authenticity, a genuine connection to voters or enthusiasm for your campaign. Money can only buy you commercials and staff.

The mantra that money in politics is evil and decides races is pervasive, and it is only growing more prevalent. It is pushed by well-meaning people who are frustrated by the lack of control they feel over the system, as well as hypocritical party boosters like Donald Sussman who decry money in politics while simultaneously pouring millions in.

But this conventional wisdom, much like the traditionalist paradigm Beane fought against in baseball, is wrong. The system is simply waiting for smart practitioners to prove it and win everything.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.