Bill, Shane and Jim

Published December 16, 2013

Chances are, you’ve never heard of any of these guys. They changed your life in the past decade and you may never have seen any of it. That’s OK, because almost no one else did either.

When I was in grad school at the University of Michigan in the 1960s, I took a job as a foreign student advisor for the Catholic student association. There were a lot of Latin American students there and I was supposed to help them in terms of settling in and having a good and somewhat religious experience. A popular activity was to take them into Detroit to see the Tigers play baseball. One night, my very pregnant wife went with us, and in about the 7th inning, she thought she might be having contractions. I took her down to the clinic just off the gate onto left field. They wouldn’t let me in to be with her (different days, then, and our son was born two months later), so I went out of the gate, and stood and watched the game from ground level. I was right there when ‘Stormin’ Norman Cash hit a monster home run out past centerfield. I was awestruck. Simply awestruck.

That was the romance of the game. A decade or so later, a guy named Bill James, who called his analysis, sabermetrics, started to publish a compendium of what were then offbeat baseball statistics. Official baseball tended to ignore him and his ardent and noisy followers. Then in the early 2000s, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, facing a ruinous season because of the loss of a lot of good players to big-budget teams, decided to test James’ theories out. You can read the rest in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, or watch the movie of the same name. I suggest you read and then watch. The Oakland bunch of ‘losers’ managed to win 20 games in a row, breaking the all-time American League record.

Next, Bill James’ approach was translated into basketball. Applying a version of James’ notions about winning games led to noticing former Duke forward, Shane Battier. Battier, who was not much of a scorer, was valuable in a different way. You have to follow me on this. Basketball games are normally statistically close. If a game finishes at 104-103, the difference between winning and losing is less than 2 points out of 207 scored. What Shane Battier was good at was messing around with the opponent’s superstar. It turned out that the big scorers averaged many points less per game with Battier defending against them than when they were defended by anybody else. Somebody scoring 30 points a game might only get 25. That game noted above would then have ended 103-99.

Another big sport has taken up Bill James’ approach: politics. We saw a bit of “big data” and the superior “ground game” in the 2008 United States election, but it really got turned on in 2012. From my point of view, that election was all but over the January before, when I read that the Barack Obama campaign had established offices in all 50 States. What that meant to me was that Jim Messina, the operations guy behind Obama’s campaign, was going to combine heavy statistical demographic analysis with a ‘full-court press’ in the neighbourhoods of key States. Using 2010 census data to find where the 2008 Obama voters might be living in 2012, combining this with repeated house-to-house canvassing in those neighbourhoods, would get out enough of what should be the Democratic base to enable victory. Nate Silver, a sabermetrics expert and author of the recent The Signal and the Noise, followed Messina’s use of big data and accurately predicted the outcome of the election.

Now Jim Messina got some advice from Silicon Valley sources, such as Eric Schmidt of Google. Google lives by matching ads to your interests, based on what they know of your activity on the Internet. It isn’t hard to make the jump to political organization sabermetrics. What appeals to your potential voters and what doesn’t? What social groups using what social media are likely to vote your way? How do you get them to the polls? An election that in an old-style campaign probably should have been lost by an incumbent was won by superior organization and knowledge. Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign depended on an air war, while Obama’s began six months earlier on a ground campaign. Any veteran of any modern war will tell you that the air is vital, but soldiers still have to go in on the ground to succeed.

We can expect ‘big data and the ground war’ to spread to campaigns elsewhere soon, including Canada. Normally, things political spread across the border between the United States and Canada with a lag of about 5 years, but it’s different now. No one in politics can ignore America’s Revolution of 2012. It will change political campaigning in many ways, not least in the rise of a professional and permanent party analytical and turnout organization. A good candidate is vital, but not organizing the campaign until after your candidate is selected will just be Romneyite old school. While you wait for Messina to publish his book, read Michael Lewis’ and Nate Silver’s.

Copyright © 2013 James D. McNiven

Adapted from an earlier version in