Obama’s Not-So-Big Data

In the movie adaption of Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ book about the Oakland Athletics, a nebbishy Jonah Hill describes the concept of moneyball like this to Brad Pitt’s beleaguered Billy Beane: “People who run ball clubs, they think in terms of buying players. Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players, your goal should be to buy wins. And in order to buy wins, you need to buy runs.” The goal for a small-market team like the A’s is to buy wins efficiently: to spend the least money for the most runs.
A similar approach is now ascendant in political campaigns. The goal for campaign professionals is to maximize not runs per dollar but votes per dollar. And discovering the strategies and tactics that accomplish this goal has been as disruptive in campaigns as it has been in baseball.
If the many media accounts of the 2012 presidential campaign are to be believed, Barack Obama’s victory can be credited to his campaign’s reliance on moneyball. A Time magazine headline from that November captured the hype: a “Secret World” of “Data Crunchers,” it said, masterminded Obama’s win. Soon after Election Day, Republicans trooped to a Harvard election postmortem to, as one Republican put it, go “to school” on the Obama campaign. The Republican National Committee released a report vowing to correct the party’s shortcomings in data, digital media, and field operations.

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