Friday, December 30, 2011

Mr. Butler, Mr. Butler, and the Future of Derby, Connecticut

A curious news item from Connecticut came to my attention recently. While the off-year 2011 elections were just a warm-up for 2012 for most of the country, for the Butler family of Derby, Connecticut, they were quite eventful indeed. James R. Butler, a Democrat serving on the town's Board of Apportionment and Taxation, was running for reelection, but when he walked into the voting booth he noticed something unusual: he was listed on the ballot as James J. Butler, which just so happens to be the name of his son. It would have been an innocuous typo anywhere else, but on a ballot, it was legally binding. As a result, the son, not the father, was declared the winner of the election. Not without controversy, he was sworn in on December 3, despite uncertainty over whether he would stay on or yield the seat to his father.

How to interpret the 1,526 ballots cast for James Butler is the political and legal equivalent of the age-old debate between grammatical prescriptivism and descriptivism. Proponents of the latter believe that a phrase like "I could care less" is correct if enough people accept it as such; therefore, if voters believed they were electing James R. Butler, then he should be elected irregardless. Prescriptivists, however, would say that the only ironclad application of the law is to seat the man whose full name was checked off—and, by the way, there's no such thing as a chaise lounge. (It's a chaise longue.)

I tend to take the prescriptivist view, so I'm sympathetic to the argument that, with such ambiguity present, obeying the letter of the law is the safest course. But being a prescriptivist often means two things: having a rigid grammatical philosophy and examining all questions on the most micro scale. However, the law (and grammar, I readily admit) requires consideration of the context and substance surrounding every nitpicking question. In the Butlers' case, even the most die-hard prescriptivist taking a broad view of the matter must see the serious legal, even constitutional problems with declaring James J. the winner. No matter what the ballot actually said, we have to use common sense about voters' intent, which almost certainly was to reelect the elder Butler. For better or for worse, most voters that day probably did not know what "their" James Butler's middle initial was—and if they did, most people probably didn't spot the typo. More troubling is that the candidate declared the victor (the younger Butler) was placed on the ballot improperly, maybe even illegally, evicting from the ballot the rightful Democratic nominee, his father. The son should never have been in a position to be sworn in in the first place!

At the same time, the name on the ballot still matters, and I don't think you can swear in James R. either. In Derby, we essentially have a situation where an ineligible candidate was nevertheless legally elected. But in order to assume a political office, you really need to do two things: get elected to it AND qualify for it. In this case—similar to if a 24-year-old won the presidency of the United States—no candidate has satisfied both requirements, and so the office should remain vacant. Then, as soon as practicable, the position should be filled through whatever means normally fill a vacancy (e.g., death or resignation) for that office.

Dubiously, Derby didn't take that seemingly sensible path. Instead, the younger Butler essentially staged a mini coup d'état of the Derby Board of Apportionment and Taxation. (Yes, that's a provocative term to use, but, strictly speaking, it's pretty accurate.) If there were to be an identical error on a larger stage (e.g., on a presidential ballot in a swing state), it would be a full-blown constitutional crisis; there isn't enough money in the world to pay all the lawyers' fees that would result. Additionally, the fact that James J. was sworn in even after the mistake was exposed makes it hypothetically possible for future ballot-printers to purposefully tamper with elections and affect their outcomes, at least if they feel like being an evil genius that day.

Really, what kept this from being a far nastier affair was the fact that the two "candidates" involved were father and son. Given the drama, there's an eerie lack of animosity apparent in interviews with the Butlers. At his son's swearing-in ceremony, James R. Butler sat in the front row, saying afterward, "If he wants it, it's his" and—betraying no interest in putting up a fight for a position he wanted badly enough to run for office to get—"It's my son's decision now on what he wants to do." As late as December 5 (almost a month after Election Day), James R. told reporters that father and son hadn't even talked about the issue yet. And rather than having the issue decided in court, the Butlers said they would discuss it as a family over dinner. (Eventually, James J. did resign and James R. was appointed to the seat via Derby's regular vacancy procedure—the elder Butler even earned a promotion to board chairman.)

I can't decide if this is dangerous or noble. On one hand, it doesn't matter how small your scale is—legal concepts are the same. There is no minimum threshold beyond which they can be ignored. While acrimony is never desirable, a legal dispute should be settled in a legal setting; especially when the legal concepts are this stark and the consequences this weighty, it's important that an appropriate and well-founded precedent be set. On the other hand, this self-settling controversy seems a reminder of a simpler time embodied by small towns like Derby. In hamlets where everyone still knows their neighbor, business can occur on an intimate basis, and compromises are easier to reach because they are personal and forged among friends. Where on a larger scale accusations of power-grabbing and corruption would fly, no one in this tiny town thought the Butlers were trying to install an unelected monarchy, despite the presence of all the legal loopholes discussed above. Even with such big concepts at play, this was an innocent mistake; who can blame the town for saying, "We're all responsible adults here—ethical, law-abiding citizens who trust each other and know that this is just a weird accident with our Board of Apportionment and Taxation. Surely we can come to a consensus solution and agree that it doesn't mean anything beyond who gets to crunch numbers for a couple years for a town whose budget isn't worth a fortune anyway." Why overcomplicate things? Would that all politics be so simple.

The addendum to that would be that the cause of all this was something equally simple. Somewhere, someone misprinted a single letter. That's all. If a rural Connecticuter sitting in a drab town-hall office could touch off such a turmoil with one innocuous mistake, surely it can all be fixed, equally informally, without leaving the walls of that same town hall... right?

I'm not sure. And the only thing I take away from the Derby debacle for sure is this: if a constitutional crisis or the seminal debate over local control could arise from your work, be sure to double-check it for typos.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The #40dollars Campaign is Money for the GOP

The latest installment of the popular quarterly soap opera "Congressional Brinksmanship" wrapped up with much drama just before this weekend's holiday. This particular episode was fought over the extension of the payroll tax cut—an issue that you'd expect Republicans to love and Democrats to be leery of. Instead, it was the other way around—once President Obama made it his mission to extend the tax cut, congressional Republicans dug in against him (as they have made it their life's work to do). Eventually, it became clear that public opinion was coalescing against them, and House Republicans agreed to a two-month extension of the tax cut.

This White House has had something of a difficult time winning PR battles—most notably with its landmark health-care law, which was a major legislative achievement but which even liberals view unfavorably. The one over the payroll tax cut, however, was waged masterfully. The centerpiece of the effort was a Twitter campaign that asked the social network's 100+ million active users, "What does $40 mean to you?" (Never mind the small detail that "40 dollars" is plural.) Forty dollars is, of course, the amount an average family saves every two weeks as long as the tax cut is in place. If you're one of the White House's 2.6 million followers, you certainly witnessed the overwhelming response: the hashtag "#40dollars" even trended on Twitter, leading the White House director of new media to call it the administration's most successful social-media campaign. The public reaction to the payroll-tax debate, epitomized on Twitter, was the straw that broke the Republicans' backs—a textbook example of the president's power to persuade.

The White House had a lot to celebrate this Christmas, from the signing of the tax cut extension to the fact that they actually out-messaged Republicans for once. But I believe it will prove to be a Pyrrhic victory for them. In any conflict, the downside to using a killer tactic or secret weapon is that it's not a secret anymore; the other side is thenceforth able to use it against you. It's even worse when the tactic is one that more naturally fits your enemy's strengths and not your own—and that is the case here. Democrats find themselves in support of tax cuts about once in a blue moon; meanwhile, Republicans are much likelier to find use for a "#40dollars"-esque campaign going forward. Expect the GOP to learn from this example in the future: not only to emphasize the real-world savings of a tax cut to average Americans, but to appeal directly to them to cause them to consider what that extra cash would mean to them. In fact, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts in one year will probably set up a far more explosive battle over a much more consequential tax. In that fight, Republicans will be the ones arguing for an extension—and now they know exactly how to win that argument.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Is High Attendance in Miami a Fish Story?

In my last post, I laid out the argument for why the Miami Marlins should be optimistic about their attendance statistics next year. If I do say so myself, it was a convincing argument—with graphs and everything!—but, alas, it is a misleading one. Everything in that post is still correct, mind you, so Floridians should feel free to find a silver lining here. But look deeper into the same data and you'll find that the Marlins' attendance picture is a lot cloudier than the team would like.

As in the last post, it would behoove us to start by looking at the effect of a new ballpark on gate receipts. Here is the pertinent graph from last time:

We already discussed the impressive surge that a team receives from a new stadium. Conveniently left out of the "good news" post, however, was the dip back down that typically occurs during the stadium's second season. Just as a new park draws in a median 7,563 new fans per game in its first season, it loses a median 6,290 fans in the second year—essentially, as the graph shows in most cases, returning to square one. The two teams that sustained the increases, the 2010 Yankees and 2007 Cardinals, are both teams with consistently high attendance anyway; unlike the others, they didn't experience a bump when moving into the new stadium to begin with (what doesn't go up won't come down). And oh yeah—they also both celebrated World Series championships in their new parks' inaugural seasons.

For hope in breaking this trend, the Marlins might look to the 2011 Minnesota Twins, whose attendance dipped only slightly from 2010, their first year in Target Field. While it's too early to say if the Twins will be an exception to the rule (Great American Ballpark and PETCO Park both hung in there in their second seasons as well, but they eventually came down to earth), it is encouraging that the Twins have hit nearly 40,000 fans at every Target Field game after failing to crack 30,000 at the old Metrodome every year this century. Miami might hope that its transition from a Metrodome-esque multi-purpose prison to the bells and whistles of not-yet-corporately-sponsored New Marlins Ballpark will produce similar results: a fan base that sticks around due to the sheer attractiveness of the park. I wouldn't hold my breath, though—over the past decade, the Twins have built a rather devoted fan base whose true interest in the team is probably better reflected in the Target Field attendance figures anyway. It seems unlikely that the Marlins, in baseball-apathetic South Florida, have a parallel hidden fan base that is straining to burst out of the woodwork.

This line of thinking got me wondering. Aren't there some teams, such as the Red Sox and Cubs, who simply have a deeper and more devoted fan base than others? Anecdotally, this would certainly seem to be the case, and the suspicion prompted me to take a second look at the correlation between attendance and wins. Although my last post found an extremely tenuous relationship between the two, I decided to isolate for another variable—team—to double-check. Here is a graph showing the correlation between 2001-2011 attendance and wins for all teams in the NL East:

As you can see, four of the teams still show basically no relationship, but two of them show a strong one. The graphs for other divisions show a similar pattern, leading us to a new conclusion. The correlation between wins and attendance is not weak because wins matter only an eensy-weensy bit; rather, it is weak because wins matter quite a bit for some teams and not at all for others. It turns out that there are three types of teams:

1. Perennially Popular. These franchises draw fans by the boatload regardless of the quality of the team they field. In the NL East, the Braves fit this mold, hitting 30,000-35,000 fans per game every year despite a wildly varying win total. Other examples are exactly who you'd expect: the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Cardinals, etc.

2. Bandwagon. Not to say that these franchises have fairweather fans, but they clearly show up when the team is successful and stay home when it's not. NL East examples are the Mets and the Phillies (yes, Philadelphia, I don't disagree with how devoted you are now—but where were you back in the Robert Person era?). Others include the Brewers, Tigers, and Mariners.

3. Fan-Repellant. Lastly, there are the franchises that just can't seem to fill their parks, no matter how hard they try or how much they win. (Well, more accurately, fan-repellant teams often do show a strong relationship between winning and attendance—they just draw 10,000 when they lose, 15,000 when they're OK, and 20,000 when they win.) Again, the list is easy to guess based on conventional wisdom: Tampa Bay and Oakland are the most infamous. Others like Pittsburgh and Kansas City might fit in this category as well, but this is harder to say for certain because they've never been successful enough to create a bandwagon. The NL East is represented in this category by the erstwhile Expos... and the Marlins.

Uh-oh, Miami. For those of you who asked after the last post, "What's the catch?", this is it. But let us not forget that wins never showed themselves to have much of an impact on the Marlins' attendance, even in the optimistic half of this analysis. Surely the other, stronger trends will discredit these categories—say, the combined win total of the previous and current seasons:

Er, maybe not. Even when using a different variable, the teams still break down into the same three basic categories; we now have confirmation. But just to triple-check, how about the number of wins from the previous season:

Still the Mets and Phillies have the most significant correlations, and still the Marlins are in the second division of attendance. You probably won't be surprised, then, to learn that hype doesn't position them any better. While the Marlins do have the division's tightest correlation with Vegas odds, it does them little good in trying to draw more fans, in absolute terms, than perennially popular or bandwagon teams:

All four graphs show that the Marlins' previously established attendance patterns are only a part of their third-category—"Fan-Repellant"—identity. As much as expectations and especially hype help this team draw, they have never exceeded an average of 22,871 fans per game. According to their attendance-vs.-hype trendline, the Marlins' ceiling—and this would be if they had a 100% chance of winning the World Series—is 35,050 fans per game. Like other teams in the fan-repellant category, they face the problem of far-too-rapidly diminishing returns: gains that are undeniable, yet so incremental that they run out of room to grow.

The graphs drive home a point that my previous post purposefully left out: context. It's painfully obvious from the visuals how many fewer fans the Marlins draw, even when they're on the top of their game, than the powerhouses in New York, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. Even a miserable Phillies or Mets season would be a good attendance year for the Marlins.

So after all that, it turns out that the single greatest determinant of attendance isn't wins, or even hype—it's whether you play in a "good baseball town." To Miamians, that hardly seems fair. So their team is doomed never to attract support? They'll tread water for a few decades and then move on to a different city?

Again, not exactly. I'm reluctant to believe that there are just intrinsic factors about Boston and St. Louis that are nonexistent in Miami or Kansas City. I do think that is part of it: Montréal, for instance, has a completely different culture from American cities; baseball always seemed an awkward fit in separatist, Francophone Québec. And baseball faces an uphill battle in the South (including Florida), where it will probably always take a backseat to college football. But there are cities, such as Pittsburgh or Cincinnati, that used to be "good baseball towns" and yet have faded away in recent years. Likewise, today's "good baseball towns" have not always been so. The possibility at least exists, then, for Miami to develop into a bandwagon team, or even a perennially popular one.

So what long-term paradigm shifts are capable of bumping a team from one attendance-predictive category to another? We can take a stab at it by looking at what each category has in common (other than actual attendance). In a post full of statistical analysis, this is complete theorizing, but here are a few ideas:

1. Ballparks. Fan-repellant teams usually have ugly ones. Perennially popular teams usually have stadiums that are destinations, either because they're historical landmarks or anchor popular or centrally located neighborhoods.

2. Dynasties. Many perennially popular franchises are league powerhouses not just for one or two seasons, but for years on end. The longer that something is trendy, the more time it will take to go out of style.

3. History. List the perennially popular teams, and you've got a pretty good approximation of the original AL and NL teams from the turn of the century, especially those that have never been relocated. If your grandfather grew up rooting for the Cardinals, you will too.

4. Marketing. The Red Sox haven't sold out 712 consecutive games just because Boston is the bee's knees. They've developed a masterful marketing plan that involves the now-sacred notion of "Red Sox Nation" and high community involvement on the part of the team.

5. Economy and demographics. I have a feeling that teams like Cincinnati and Pittsburgh would do better if the Rust Belt hadn't been hit so hard during the current recession. The once-proud cities of Detroit and Cleveland are also losing population—and therefore potential customers—at an alarming rate.

6. Geography. Yes, MLB teams in areas with less competition from other sports (college football in the South, hockey in Canada) will have an easier go of it, but, again, it's not insurmountable.

7. Television. Perennially popular teams often seem to have their own TV networks: YES for the Yankees, TBS for Ted Turner and the Braves, or WGN in Chicago. Even the Orioles' MASN might be responsible for bringing more fans to Camden Yards than you would probably expect. Bringing games into people's homes is obviously a great way to build a team's mass appeal.

Some of these are factors that the Marlins can control. Others, unfortunately, are intrinsic obstacles that the Marlins must succeed in spite, not because, of. All of them, though, will take time and patience to develop or overcome—more time than the quick fix of an offseason spending spree. The good news for Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria is that he has actually done everything right so far: built a new park, laid the foundation for a long-term winner, and rebranded the franchise with a new name and new logo. The bad news is that these things alone won't catapult Miami out of the bottom tier. It's going to take more work and a long-term dedication to this plan (something the Marlins have had trouble with in the past).

This has been a pessimistic post for the Marlins. But for the final word on the state of Miami's attendance going forward, we must combine the findings from the earlier post as well. If you take their 15/1 World Series odds, apply it to the tight correlation that Miami-specific attendance has with Las Vegas, and add a ballpark estimate of 10,000 additional fans for the first season of the new stadium, the Marlins should expect to draw 31,909 fans per game in 2012. That's a solid number, especially for a stadium with only 37,000 seats. But in 2013 and beyond, if nothing else is done, that number will fall—even if they sustain those high World Series odds, they'd top out at only 21,909 as long as they remain a third-rate franchise. Such a decline, sadly, would just confirm their reputation as a low-drawing franchise and make it harder for them afford the expensive new players inked at the winter meetings. It's that reputation—and, frankly, that reality—that the team must break with in order to break even.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wins Don't Fill Seats—But the Marlins Will

When the Miami Marlins left the baseball winter meetings earlier this month, they had committed as much money that week ($191 million) as their combined payrolls in the previous five seasons ($194 million). The baseball world was stunned; how could the Marlins be sure of affording all this? The franchise formerly known as the Florida Marlins had always been the biggest penny-pincher in Major League Baseball—because they were perennially last in the league in attendance. At the winter meetings, however, owner Jeffrey Loria let his actions make his argument for him: with the Marlins' beautiful new ballpark (set to open this season) and a roster newly infused with championship-caliber talent, the fans will follow.

Indeed, it's widely accepted in the industry that attendance rises and falls with a team's fortunes—that the surest way to a good profit is a good baseball team. (Likewise, it's believed that the quickest way to a good profit is a new stadium.) But as we've learned over the past decade, statistics can shoot down a lot of these widely held assumptions. So is this one fact or fiction? Is Loria's crusade to field a competitive team a brilliant business scheme, or is it going to run his Marlins into the ground?

To answer these questions, I compiled full attendance statistics for all 30 teams from 2001 to 2011 and scoured them for patterns. The first question I zeroed in on was the one I figured would be simplest: the new ballpark.

If history is any indication, the Marlins are right to be optimistic about their attendance in the immediate short term. Teams that have built a new ballpark in the past 11 years typically saw a dramatic spike in attendance (a median increase of 7,563 fans per game) in the stadium's inaugural season:
Even better for the Marlins is that teams moving from unattractive, multi-sport stadiums (e.g., the Phillies from Veterans Stadium or the Padres from Qualcomm) saw particularly big increases. (The Marlins are moving from unattractive, football-centric Sun Life Stadium.) In contrast, they have nothing in common with the teams that actually lost fans as a result of a stadium switch. The Yankees, Mets, and Cardinals all had extremely high attendance figures prior to the move; their numbers had nowhere to go but down. In addition, they were all moving out of historic ballparks whose attendance statistics in their final seasons were probably inflated by nostalgia.

The Marlins therefore look pretty certain to gain about 10,000 fans per game in 2012. But after that, will their winning ways (assuming they do win) keep attendance up? Here's how attendance figures for all 30 teams have matched up with wins over the past 11 seasons (just for kicks, teams with new ballparks are marked in red):
You can see that there's a vague trend, but the correlation is extremely loose; a 90-win team has been known to draw anywhere from 16,000 to 53,000 per game. So wins actually don't fill seats; something else has to be at play.

Could it be excitement left over from the previous season? Do some quick math, and you'll find that teams that made the playoffs the previous season average 8,911 more fans per game (36,989) than teams that missed out (28,078)—World Series winners average 10,661 more (38,739 average daily attendance the next season). Here are daily attendance figures correlated with wins in the previous baseball season:
Same problem (the correlation is slightly better, but it still has no predictive value). Surely, though, attendance is a combination of past winning and present winning. So here's attendance compared to total wins over the current and the previous season:
We're doing a little better each time, but we're still not there yet. It may be time to face the possibility that attendance has nothing to do with material wins at all. But what, then?

Of all people, Jeffrey Loria might have the answer. The 2012 Marlins haven't won a game yet, and the industry consensus is that Miami is as excited about baseball as it has ever been. It's all about the hype, and Loria bought himself a boatload of it at the winter meetings. We saw the same thing last winter in Philadelphia, where Cliff Lee created a mountain of anticipation behind the Phillies; likewise, the Angels' signing of Albert Pujols has whipped that fan base into a ticket-buying frenzy.

Hype seems like an excellent predictor of ticket sales, but it is difficult to measure. However, there is one variable that necessarily takes into account everything that hype encompasses (offseason splashes, willingness to spend to win, performance the previous season, and a realistic assessment of future competitiveness): Vegas odds.

Here is a graph relating attendance to teams' chances of winning the World Series, based on odds assigned the February or March before the season starts:
It's far from perfect, but this is easily the best relationship that we've found. The old axiom that wins fill seats is therefore imprecise: winning (and a winning tradition) can certainly increase your team's hype, but it's that electricity in the air surrounding a squad that has a greater impact on attendance. (This makes sense, too, because hype is a product of many diverse factors, mirroring the many reasons that fans might give for deciding to buy tickets.) At a respectable 15/1 chance to win the World Series, the Marlins have to like that.

For Miami fans who still don't believe it—it gets better. Isolate the data for the Marlins and you get an even more compelling case for hype selling tickets in South Beach. Here are the Marlins' attendances over the past 11 seasons as related to wins:
No relationship at all; in SoFlo, wins are actually irrelevant. Fans do, however, pay some attention to the heights achieved by the Marlins in the previous season:
The two seasons factored together are somewhere in between:
But Jeffrey Loria must have really done his homework, because what drives Floridians to Sun Life Stadium more than anything else is hype (as represented by World Series odds):
Except for one outlier, it's even a pretty tight correlation.

At this point, I'm about ready to go invest in some José Reyes jerseys. (Stay away from the Hanley Ramírez ones for now, though.) And the Marlins front office has indeed done everything right—everything in their power, anyway—to boost attendance. But, unfortunately for the Marlins and their fans, this is only half the story—and the other half is decidedly more pessimistic about Miami's box-office future. In the next post I'll play devil's advocate to this idea that Marlins tickets are going to be a hot sell going forward—and the devil is in the details.

Stay tuned.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Radicalism of the Independent Voter

Among those of us who eat up polling data like they're In-N-Out burgers, it can be difficult to pick up on some of the more obscure patterns in the crosstabs. However, there's been a trend in a handful of Public Policy Polling surveys recently that I've found impossible to ignore.

The trend concerns the responses of independent voters to candidates who, like these voters, defy labels. The latest example is a good starting point: in this week's poll of the New Mexico Senate race, PPP asked about a hypothetical faceoff between the two top Democrats in the race and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, currently a long-shot GOP candidate for president. PPP found that, if Johnson switched his ambitions to the upper chamber of Congress, he would draw huge levels of support from independent voters. The advantage (57-19 and 52-30 against Hector Balderas and Martin Heinrich, respectively) would be enough to put this Democratic-leaning Senate race into the tossup column.

We saw this before with a multitude of PPP polls testing Congressman Ron Paul's strength against President Obama, should Paul win the Republican presidential nod. In several states, Paul is the only Republican candidate to lead Obama among independents.

Based on this information and the myth of the independent voter, you would expect Johnson and Paul to be pragmatic, moderate voices known for their ability to work across the aisle. The problem, of course, is that that's not exactly the description that comes to mind. Famously, Johnson and Paul are both rabid libertarians—considered to have the most radical views in the presidential field and thought to be the most shocking (some would say dangerous) choice for the political establishment. It's fascinating, and a bit surprising, that these would be the candidates that most fire up this supposedly centrist voting bloc.

However, we really shouldn't be so surprised. PPP's findings underline two points that are crucial to keep in mind as we head into 2012. The first is the aforementioned myth of the independent voter. In reality, independents do not occupy some sensible middle ground between the two polarized parties. Instead, they are a diverse hodgepodge of voters on all ends of the political spectrum—or, more accurately, on all corners of the political map. Many of them are Democrats or Republicans who just don't like to be labeled. Others are populists who will wantonly swing between liberalism and conservatism from year to year. And yet others are way out there on the fringes of the so-called "mainstream"—including an apparently growing group of disillusioned, anti-government libertarians.

That brings us to the second point: as we know anecdotally from the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, voters are angry. This is especially true of independent voters, who don't have a built-in devotion to an established political party (by definition a part of the elite). If independents are looking for someone who will upend what they see as a broken system, they can do little better than Gary Johnson or Ron Paul. In a way, it makes sense for those swinging populists to land on a libertarian (or other third-party candidate) in 2012: they've alternated between Democrats and Republicans in the past, and neither one has worked out for them so far. And as other disaffecteds—such as the college students and first-time voters who stereotypically support Johnson and Paul—come out of the woodwork, they're sure not going to identify with the Ds or Rs when a pollster calls them up.

These voters are the reasons that Johnson and Paul are polling so well for PPP. Pundits can dismiss those types of radical candidates and radical voters all they want, but it would be in favor of a mythical moderate independent who doesn't really exist. In 2012, the angry, and those willing to make radical changes, seem to be the new kids in this bloc. They may not be what we think of when we hear the word "independents," but, truly, they are the most independent-minded voters out there.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Will Romney's Gaffe Hurt Him? Don't Bet On It

Maybe Mitt Romney just got a little too excited after his home state recently approved casino gambling. In last night's GOP presidential debate, the erstwhile frontrunner took on Rick Perry by betting him $10,000 that Perry was misrepresenting the content of Romney's book. Immediately after the debate, Romney began taking heavy flak for the curious and seemingly elitist remark.

Obviously, Romney would have less of a debate hangover this morning if he had bet Perry a more modest sum. (Perhaps it would go from Vegas-sized to Salt Lake City–sized.) Despite other noteworthy moments from the debate, pundits and blogs this morning are using the $10,000 to hammer home a familiar theme: Mitt Romney is rich and out of touch with the average American. Indeed, the deeper they dig, the harder it hits. First it's "Mitt Romney is rich"; then it's pointed out that Romney was nonchalant about a sum of money that many Americans take months to earn. Then the math brings the issue into stark relief: by betting $10,000, Romney was gambling 0.005% of his $200 million net worth. If the median family were to bet 0.005% of their net worth, it would be a simple $5 bet. As a result, Romney truly might not have realized how pricey his bet was—after all, we don't think twice about betting $5 on the Super Bowl.

(However, one possible defense for the Romney campaign would be to argue that he intended to wager an exorbitant sum—because of how sure he was that Perry was wrong. We also don't think twice about saying, "I'll bet you a million bucks," to emphasize that there is no doubt in our minds that we are correct. Still, if this is what Romney meant, he probably should have bet Perry the full $1 million. And even if he was exaggerating to make a point, the fact that it was universally taken as a sign of his affluence proves that it was not the best way to draw attention to his point.)

So, yes, Mitt Romney is rich. But we knew that before the debate, too—and that's why, despite all the attention from the punditry, this gaffe is unlikely to put a significant dent in Romney's numbers. More so than any other candidate this year, or even this decade, Mitt Romney is a known commodity. Since 2007, when he left office as Massachusetts governor, he has been running for president almost nonstop—that's four years of media attention as one of the GOP's major national figures. His name recognition is high, and his positives and negatives are well established, unlike the many fluid candidates (Bachmann, Cain, Perry) that we've seen this cycle. As a result, Romney's poll numbers have famously (and frustratingly, for his campaign) held steady at around 25% all year.

Those 25% of voters know by now that Romney is rolling in it. They're still in his corner, though—probably because the reason for their support is something else well known about their candidate (his private-sector success or high electability, for instance). It's definitely not because Romney "most understands the needs and problems of people like" them—a statement only 13% (at most half of Romney voters) of Iowa Republicans agreed with in a recent poll. A cynic might say that this is the portion of the Republican Party composed of realists who have settled for a nominee they know is not perfect, but is—in their mind—still the party's best bet.

Romney's problem, of course, is the 75% of GOPers who seem to refuse to vote for him. The flip side of the same logic applies to them: these are the people who are aware of Romney's positives and negatives and have decided the negatives win out. But Romney had this problem long before last night, so "Bet-gate" can't explain it. Nor is the $10,000 offer likely to make things worse among this segment of voters; Romney's wealth is hardly their only misgiving about him, and conservatives are relatively unconcerned with the issue that the outsized bet speaks to. One national poll found that income inequality is considered a major problem by 59% of moderates, 68% of Democrats, and 83% of liberals—but only 48% of Republicans and 32% of conservatives. If there is one segment of the American public that this debate gaffe won't matter to, it is conservative primary voters. Flip-flopping, on the other hand, remains probably Romney's greatest weakness; if he misses out on the nomination, that's a far likelier culprit than his swelling bank account.

Now, this doesn't mean that the bet can't hurt Romney; well-executed spin can always be dangerous for a campaign. One thing to look for is whether one of Romney's opponents makes a play for that slice of voters that were grievously offended by the $10,000 bet. (I never said they didn't exist, just that they weren't a significant number.) The intended recipient of the bet, Rick Perry, has already tried to align himself with that bloc, saying that he found the bet as "out of touch" as everyone else did. If Perry or another candidate can really latch onto the everyman theme, it may make a difference in such a splintered primary field; even if Romney doesn't lose support in the aftermath of his gaffe, another candidate could gain as a result of exploiting it and knock Romney down one peg on the list of Iowa medal-winners.

Finally, never discount the role of the media in these campaigns. Rick Perry and Herman Cain didn't lose support immediately after their first few debate stumbles or sexual-harassment allegations, but rather their support eroded as the media continued to hammer away at them for it. If the media keeps the memory of Romney's bet alive, he's more likely to suffer from it. Only time will tell if this will be the case. In the meantime, it all adds up to the same conclusion: if you're looking to place money on this primary campaign, it's still safest to hedge your bets.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Post 1: The First Post

Welcome to Baseballot!

Whew, that felt good to get off my chest. See, I'm kind of new (read: lime green) to this blogging thing. Now that I've actually taken the step of creating one, I feel like I need to set forth the reasoning behind this blog—a mission statement, if you will.

This blog is written for the sorriest species that roams this lonely internet, the nerdiest of the nerds: political junkies who happen also to be rabid baseball fans. I was inspired to start a blog on this subject because (a) I'm a writer who hasn't written in a while and that tends to cause people to explode and (b) I seem to have company as a member of this politics/baseball crossbreed. As one Washingtonian put it, "Baseball's the perfect sport for nerds. It doesn't require a huge amount of athletic ability to play, and it's got this cerebral component that appeals to people." The overlap is amazing when you think about it: Presidential first pitches. Congressional baseball games. Baseball is America's pastime, and America's politicians have to get with the program. As early as 1889, a New York newspaper wrote, "all statesmen of any aspirations for the future to consider that if they have not yet recorded themselves as lovers of our national game or some other sporting interest, they should do so immediately." The second commissioner of baseball, Happy Chandler, was first a senator from Kentucky. Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, after his retirement from the game, moved on to a second career—as, um, a senator from Kentucky. Justice Sam Alito went to Phillies fantasy camp. President Bush used to own the Rangers. White House press secretary Jay Carney and CNN anchor John King are rabid Red Sox fans. The list goes on.

The overlap isn't lost on fellow bloggers, either. In fact, if this is going to be Baseballot's mission statement, it only seems fair that I reveal my inspirations and influences as well. For baseball blogging, my first stop is HardballTalk, whose chief blogger Craig Calcaterra also seems to enjoy indulging in political commentary from time to time. The political blog I most admire is FiveThirtyEight, whose Nate Silver was famously first a writer and accomplished statistician for Baseball Prospectus. You can expect to see a little bit of both Craig and Nate in here, as well as a whole lot of myself and, hopefully, a more even balance between the ballgame and the ballot game.

Now, there are blogs about politics. There are blogs about baseball. How is this one going to be different? Well, first off, it's going to be about BOTH politics AND baseball; haven't you been listening? Seriously, though, I do want to add something that the internet doesn't already have. To that end, this blog will focus on a few specifics:
  • Delivering data-driven and scientific-method-inspired analysis of both politics and baseball, and applying "sabermetrics" (the philosophy thereof, not necessarily xFIP itself) to the myth-filled world of politics and campaigns.
  • Considering the role of language in both politics and baseball.
  • Giving special attention to local political and baseball-ian news stories that the national media tend to pass over.
Of course, having said this, I'm now sure that I'll veer off course and write about whatever tickles my fancy. But I've got a couple ideas already that fit pretty nicely into these categories, so for now, away we go! Thanks for coming along for the ride!