Bill James, ‘Moneyball’ Godfather, Tackles Politics In Super PAC Age

James hasn’t dabbled much in politics before. But in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows for unlimited campaign spending by corporations and unions, his analytical approach has become more relevant to the political conversation.

Bill James is the high priest of baseball number-crunching. Photo: Dishfunctional/Flickr

A political candidate dramatically outspent in a campaign by his opponent has few options: he can pin his hopes on a strong debate performance, dig up dirt on the opposition, or cut a particularly buzz-worthy television ad.

But there is one more option – a candidate can do what other industries, led by Major League Baseball, have done before: worship at the altar of Bill James.

In 1977 James began publishing the “Bill James Baseball Abstracts,” which paved the way for “sabermetrics,” a system of statistical analysis that fundamentally transformed the sport, writes The Huff Post.

While Billy Beane, manager of the perennially low-budget Oakland Athletics, is the face of “Moneyball” — the ethos of small-budget teams competing against well-funded opponents — James, named by Time magazine James one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2006, is its brain.

Since then the Obama campaign and Democrats have begun preaching “Moneyball”-like theories about how to compete against the onslaught of conservative super PAC spending this election cycle.

“If you’re outspent in a campaign, what you absolutely cannot do is start a pissing contest, pardon my French,” James wrote in an email to The Huff Post.

“If you’re outspent and you start talking about your opponent being corrupt and senile, you’re in BIG trouble, because he’s got a lot more guns than you have,” James said.

James doesn’t advise a candidate to go negative. Instead, a candidate should do the exact opposite.

“Talk about your opponent in the nicest terms that you CAN, in order to take certain weapons away from him,” James wrote in the e-mail.

“If you’re speaking well of your opponent and your opponent is savaging you, there is a chance he comes off looking like an ass and you can win the election.”

“If a candidate for office starts talking about thinning the deer population or investing in barriers to reduce the number of deer on the highways, the other side will probably just ignore him, because they’re not going to know what to say about it,” he wrote. “But there is a chance that the issue will resonate with voters in an unexpected way.”

James also suggested a candidate run on a platform distinct from either major party (anti-drug war, pro-gay rights).

Most pertinent to 2012 is James’ theory that outspent candidates would be better off going nice.

At a recent briefing with reporters, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell made that point when discussing why many Democrats, including former President Bill Clinton, declined to follow the Obama campaign in criticizing Mitt Romney’s private equity career.

“He is not off message,” said Rendell.

“Bill Clinton is an extraordinarily smart politician. … This is something that I did as DNC chair. You don’t demonize your opponent because it builds your credibility. … Bill Clinton is going to be lights out in October when it counts. And the average undecided voter is going to remember that he didn’t trash Governor Romney, that he said he was a decent guy with good qualifications,” he said.

James also 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.”

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