One of the most recent instances of politics likened to pop culture comes to us from the Washington Post, where Sonny Bunch says that “Moneyball,” might best explain the election outcome.
“Moneyball,” was the principle developed in baseball by Bill James, and used most notably by Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics, whereby teams with smaller budgets used advanced stats to exploit market inefficiencies to overtake and outplay more highly-financed opponents.
Bunch writes, “Of all the pieces of pop culture floating around, the one that might best help those searching for an explanation for Donald Trump’s victory is a 13-year-old book about baseball strategy: Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball.”
Of all the aspects of “Moneyball” that Bunch notes, he finds particular insight in a late add to the afterword of the paperback edition. Bunch says, “My favorite part of “Moneyball” may be the afterword added to the paperback edition in 2004. In it, Lewis runs through all the ways in which “the Club” — that is, the baseball insiders who valued propriety over proficiency — attacked the book and its central subject, Beane. Usually, this manifested in harping on individual pieces of the Athletics’ strategy (the team’s obsession with on-base percentage as opposed to batting average or its insistence that sacrifice bunts were bad) in a way that missed the forest for the trees.”
How does any of this apply to Trump? Bunch makes his case:
If there’s anything that the political market is full of, it’s inefficiencies. And the Trump team, to its credit, understood just that. The easy story to tell about Trump is one of a billionaire bully who preyed on prejudice to push the first female president out of the White House. But there’s another story to be told, one about an underdog campaign that raised about half as much money as its opponent and managed to win anyway, in part by disregarding common campaigning strategies and focusing on the inherent inefficiencies of the electoral college.
Political pros were shocked, for instance, that Trump refused to staff up in the states. “While Hillary Clinton touts 51 Florida field offices, Donald Trump has just one,” read a representative headline from the Tampa Bay Times’ political editor two months before the election. “The Trump Campaign has a ground-game problem,” PBS reported a few days before that, noting, “Hillary Clinton currently has more than three times the number of campaign offices in critical states than does Donald Trump.” A late-September piece in The Washington Post skeptical of Trump’s spending (almost accidentally) highlighted the advantages of this strategy for Trump: “The billionaire continued to maintain a small campaign staff, spending just about $765,000 on payroll in August on 131 staffers, up from about $500,000 in July, when he had about 82 people on the payroll. Clinton, by comparison, had 789 people on staff last month.”
And when the Trump campaign did use traditional campaign methods? Bunch explains, “And when Trump’s team did advertise over the air, it did so smartly; perhaps the cleverest thing Trump’s team did was target viewers of “The Walking Dead,” a show that preys upon anxieties of invasion and collapse.
“The Trump campaign was banking on the idea that ground game, at least as it’s traditionally understood, is a waste of money — a bet against inefficiency that appears to have paid off. But this isn’t the only way the campaign resembled the card-counting Beane that Lewis described. Understanding that the electoral college, rather than the popular vote, decides presidencies, the Trump campaign banked on losing the popular vote and winning the electors.”
The entire piece deserves your time. Of course, the biggest market inefficiency Trump took advantage of in the election was Hillary Clinton, quite possibly the least popular politician since the Nero Administration. Besides, in a move resembling insanity more than inefficiency, Clinton and her campaign team seemed to completely forget about the states of Wisconsin and Michigan.
Perhaps if the Yankees had forgotten how to hit and field, the A’s would have found a way to seal the deal back in the early 2000’s. Still though, this analogy is far from the worst political/pop culture reference out there. Definite similarities exist in how Trump’s campaign, and teams who use “Moneyball” principles, run their operations. How far that goes, and whether those principles produced the victory, is open to interpretation.
But hey, if nothing else, the next time someone asks you who has ever won it all using “Moneyball?”
I guess you could say Donald Trump.
Follow Dylan Gwinn on Twitter: @themightygwinn