- - Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It will subtract not one granule from Michael Lewis’ great skill as a storyteller to note that America has gone “Moneyball” mad.

“Moneyball” was a good book made into a moving movie, exceeding Mr. Lewis’ own meager expectations. American pop culture is turning it into a way of life.

“Moneyball” insights have migrated to football (Yahoo Sports: “Denver Broncos Have Found a Moneyball Player in QB Tim Tebow”); helped a contestant clean up on “Jeopardy!” (NBC Sports: ” ‘Jeopardy!’ + ‘Moneyball’ = $$$$”); even ascended to the rarified level of allegory (Forbes: “Moneyball Is an Unintentional Allegory About Today’s Financial Mess”).

One half expects to find next the “Moneyball Guide to Finding That Perfect Someone.”

The one place “Moneyball” is not showing up very often of late is politics. Therein lies a lesson.

“Rick and His Eggheads: Inside the Brainiest Political Operation in America,” by Monocle’s Washington correspondent Sasha Issenberg, ought to be the political hit of the season, but this e-book is languishing. Though priced at only 99 cents, its rank on the Amazon best-seller list at press time was No. 60,506. “Eggheads” is part of a larger book to be published later titled “The Victory Lab.” This part of the larger narrative was released early to capitalize on Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s formal entry into the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

It made perfectly good business sense to do this because, at the time of his entry, Mr. Perry seemed invincible. He was a proven winner who had beat the stuffing out of political opponents in 10 straight primary and general elections in Texas. Here was the candidate, finally, who would single-handedly rescue our great nation from Barack Obama and Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney. He would command the support of the religious right and tea partyers and Big Oil and every voter south of the Mason-Dixon line and … one other group I can’t quite remember.

The promotional idea was to get ahead of that victory and explain it in a novel way, as the political version of “Moneyball.” (Sample title from the early news stories about “Eggheads,” from ABCNews.com: ” ‘Moneyball’ Meets Campaigning.”) Mr. Perry’s victory, Mr. Issenberg could argue, ought not be chalked up to political skill or conservative activism or just plain old dumb luck. No, the governor would have won because of science.

The “eggheads” are a group of political scientists who wanted to put the usual claims of pols and well-paid political consultants to the test. They yearned to measure the impact of television and radio spots, whistle-stops, newspaper endorsements, robocalls, yard signs and direct mail on voter support. Political scientists interested in such things usually ran into a huge problem: Few campaigns were willing to play ball. So they could not design campaign materials to get testable results on a large scale, until Perry general consultant Dave Carney dropped them an email.

The would-be Billy Beane of this story who wanted to bring more statistical rigor to political campaigns, Mr. Carney is a hard-hitting New Hampshirite. (Literally: At one point in the story, he punches a fist through a wall.) Some of Mr. Carney’s critics charge that he is cheap. The story opens with his refusal to disgorge even $20,000 from Mr. Perry’s well-funded 2010 re-election effort to pay for supporters’ yard signs. Mr. Carney has a much different take. They say cheap, he says responsible, and he would apply that responsibility to himself. To wit, he negotiates campaign contracts so that everybody, himself very much included, has a financial stake in victory.

All Perry campaign contractors receive smallish monthly payouts and “win bonuses” after the election night celebrations. “I’d rather pay somebody a lot of money to win, and less money to [just] put in an effort,” Mr. Carney explains. “I don’t really care about efforts; I care about results.” How to best get the desired results was his multimillion-dollar existential question.

His quest for an answer led Mr. Carney to make an offer to Yale political scientists Alan Gerber and Don Green in 2005. From his perspective, it was risky. From theirs, it was too good to refuse. These eggheads had worked to that point with mostly liberal nonprofit groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, so they roped in two Republican colleagues, Daron Shaw and James Gimpel, to help fit in among the Perryites.

The eggheads wanted a real large laboratory of democracy, and they don’t come any larger than Texas. They were given unprecedented access with only one serious restriction. They couldn’t talk about or publish their findings until after the 2006 gubernatorial election (which served, in effect, as their experiment).

Mr. Gerber and company thought that perhaps they could run tests on the efficiency of phones and mail, but Mr. Carney’s questions were far more wide-ranging.

“What had long been off the list to experimenters as ‘real politics’ was now on the table,” Mr. Issenberg writes. “Mr. Carney was ready to test anything the academics could figure out how to randomize, from lawn signs to television ads.” They studied how far from planned political events you should send invitations. Their randomized decisions dictated what kinds of ads ran in different markets. They even helped set the governor’s campaign travel schedule.

The research results were useful to Mr. Perry’s 2010 re-election. Running Mr. Perry’s contested Republican primary against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Mr. Carney banished yard signs, obviously, and also “direct mail, robocalls, newspaper ads, and visits to editorial boards.” Mr. Perry thrashed Ms. Hutchison by 20 points. Mr. Carney also did away with regional campaign offices, built up the campaign’s virtual presence, and held a lot of cash in reserve to attack Bill White, the moderate Democrat and three-term Houston mayor, in the weeks just before the election. Result: Mr. Perry by almost 16 percent.

So why has Mr. Perry performed so poorly on the national stage? Because he is proving to be a lousy national candidate, is one reason. His poor showing also exposes the limits of a “Moneyball” approach to politics. Applying statistical rigor to campaign practices can help improve performance, but it cannot guarantee victories any more than endorsing sabermetrics made Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s a lock to win playoffs.

The “Moneyball” advantage also dissipates as the success of one team or campaign is copied by all the others. In a sense, American baseball clubs are all Moneyballers now. And when Mr. Obama’s historically well-funded re-election effort refuses to pay for supporters’ yard signs, we’ll know exactly whom to blame.

Jeremy Lott, editor of Real Clear Books, is writing a book about death.

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