This is a special time for baseball fans. Major league baseball is ready to begin another season, with spring training officially opening this week. With some exceptions, fans in most cities can at least dream of watching their team play in the postseason and maybe even compete for the World Series championship. For them, hope springs eternal.
Ditto for the Democratic Party. 2018 appears to be a “wave year,” with an opportunity to win control of the House of Representatives, maybe even the Senate, and then use those majorities to place a major constitutional check on a president almost all Democrats loathe. Once that victory is secured, Democrats dream of finding the perfect candidate to win back the presidency in 2020. Just who that might be is not clear yet, but Democrats are hopeful that it is only a matter of time before the next Messiah arrives to lead them to the promised land. Unfortunately, hope is not a strategy in baseball or politics.
In baseball, there are two competing strategies for assembling a winning team. The choice is between going “old school,” trusting the accumulated knowledge of veteran managers, coaches and scouts to select a team and its daily lineup, or using new statistics often called “sabermetrics” to find and utilize players with the skills needed to win. The latter strategy’s recent success, incorporating new video technology that analyzes each pitch, swing, and catch in every major league game, has led to a wholesale turnover in big league managers. In just this last offseason alone, a group of young, analytically savvy new managers were hired by owners looking to copy the strategy used by last year’s World Series champions, the Houston Astros.
Political candidates and those hoping to run winning campaigns have a similar strategic choice to make, but on a much more complex playing field. When Barack Obama upended conventional campaign wisdom by defeating Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination and then went on to beat two respected Republican opponents in the 2008 and 2012 general elections, a similar wave of out-with-the-old and in-with-the-new sentiment took over the Democratic Party. Suddenly, David Plouffe, Obama’s numbers guy, became the model that every presidential hopeful wanted to hire for their campaign. In 2016, this fascination with data analytics led Hillary Clinton to choose Robby Mook as her campaign manager, putting the data guy squarely in charge. At the time, his selection became another reason why her victory was considered inevitable.
But her campaign ignored the equally important role played by David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign manager, who brought his accumulated wisdom from a lifetime spent in political campaigns to the daily strategy sessions of the Obama campaign. Some of the problems that arise from not taking into account the insights of people who in baseball terms would be considered “old school” were recently revealed in Donna Brazile’s tell-all book, Hacks. Brazile, the former chair of the Democratic National Committee and a person who cut her political teeth organizing the parishes of Louisiana, pulled no punches in describing how insular and out-of-touch Mook and his fellow Clinton campaign quants were:
“Robby Mook believed he understood the country by the clusters of information about voters he had gathered. …I heard them [talking about] the precise number of people we needed in order to win a precinct. They were so precise, they made me feel as though the style of politics I had learned in my forty years was about to be put out to pasture.”
Even though her criticisms were quickly dismissed by the Clinton crowd, who preferred to assign responsibility for Clinton’s loss solely to the machinations of Vladimir Putin, Brazile’s point was well taken. If Democrats want their 2018 and 2020 dreams to come true they will need to pay attention to her message.
Instead of choosing one strategy at the expense of the other, Democratic candidates should find managers that have the ability to do what the two World Series managers, Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers and AJ Hinch of the Houston Astros, did in managing their teams. Both of them brought insights gained from their playing careers to their managerial style. But both were also adept at using data analytics to find the best match-ups for each day’s lineup and to help them make tactical decisions during the game. Their leadership earned each of them designation as Manager of the Year—Roberts in 2016, Hinch in 2017—for their ability to blend old and new style baseball into a winning strategy.
As President Trump wrapped up his first State of the Union speech, a number of 2020 Democrats auditioned for the job of running against him. However, the best way to handicap the next presidential election might be to look beyond the potential candidates’ policies and personalities and check out their choice of campaign managers and their strategies.
Will the candidates go back to old-school masters like David Axelrod? Or will they double down on the data-centric approach of Robby Mook? Or, better yet, will they find a Dave Roberts or an A.J. Finch in the roster of campaign manager aspirants who can combine the best of both worlds to create a winning campaign? We may not know the answer to these questions until 2020, but the choices the candidates are about to make in putting together their campaign teams may have more to do with who becomes the Democratic nominee, and possibly the next president, than anything else that happens between now and then.
Meanwhile, those of us who combine our passion for politics with a love of the equally fascinating and unpredictable game of baseball will just have to live on the hope that springs in our hearts every February and occasionally gets rewarded in November.