Thursday, June 28, 2012

Previewing the Congressional Baseball Game

If you're not familiar with the annual Congressional Baseball Game, you might want to reassess being a fan of this blog. Since 1909, the two American pastimes of politics and baseball have combined on one summer night a year when Democrats and Republicans face off on the diamond. This isn't a casual softball game, either; the throwing is overhand, the uniforms are authentic, and the game is played in a major-league park. The GOP holds the edge in the all-time series (41–36–1, though there are several years for which we have no records), but the Democrats have won three in a row. Unfortunately, the game isn't taken seriously enough for anyone to keep a sabermetrician's database of detailed statistics (quick, what's Harry Reid's WAR?), but old-school scouts will still be able to tell you what to look out for:

Who will win? The most obvious question is also the one with the most obvious answer. Because it's the Congressional Baseball Game, and not the Congressional Baseball Best-of-Seven Series, one dominant pitcher is usually enough to clinch victory. This year, that dominant pitcher is Cedric Richmond, a Louisianan who will toe the slab tonight for the Democrats. Last year, Richmond led the Democrats to an 8–2 victory, and there's no reason not to expect similar results this year. The overall rosters for the two years are also very similar—a function, of course, of the fact that 2011 and 2012 share the same members of the 112th Congress. Historically, the same team tends to win both games of a given session (of the 35 sessions we have full records for, the odd-even doubleheader was swept 24 times). And, while I personally don't place much stock in the idea that a veteran, playoff-tested team is at an advantage in the World Series, it's worth noting that the GOP squad is still packed with many baby-faced Tea Party freshmen.

Will Cedric Richmond throw a no-no? Last year, Richmond took a no-hitter into the sixth inning before finally settling for a complete-game, 13-strikeout two-hitter. A former player at Morehouse College, Richmond is one of the best players the CBG has seen in a long time—and, well, these batters aren't exactly major-league quality. I suspect some history could be in the making tonight. That said, though, Republicans claim that they have learned their lesson from last year and have been practicing to hit Richmond's nasty stuff.

Will someone hit it over the fence? Legend has it that, of all people, Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) is the only member to hit a legitimate, outside-the-park home run in the CBG, all the way back in 1979. Sadly, however, legend is wrong; while Paul was the first to do it, he was joined by fellow Republican John Shimkus (R-IL) in 1997. Still, two taters in 78 games (that we know of) is a pretty low rate, so Paul is probably deserving of his 2012 induction into the Congressional Baseball Game Hall of Fame. (Yes, there's a Congressional Baseball Game Hall of Fame.) But it does mean that, no, you are not likely to see any feats of Hamilton-esque proportions tonight.

Will there be any beanballs? Today, of course, is awkward timing for the Congressional Baseball Game; only nine hours before first pitch, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold the Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as Obamacare), setting off alternating waves of jubilation and fury in the halls of the Capitol. While the CBG is meant to promote bipartisan fun, it certainly comes on a day and in an era of unprecedented political polarization. Will any of that animosity spill out onto the field? And if so, could the game itself be in jeopardy?

Finally, what does it all mean for November? Maybe the better question is what November means for the game; tonight may be your last chance to see many players, such as Thad McCotter (R-MI) or Joe Donnelly (D-IN), who are retiring or may be designated for assignment by the voters of their district. (Donnelly is actually running for Senate, though he faces an uphill climb.) But their replacements could be even better—Florida Republican Ron DeSantis, who hopes to be the next congressman from the Florida Fourth, is a veteran of the Little League World Series. As for what it means for November, interestingly, the team that wins an even-numbered Congressional Baseball Game has succeeded at capturing or retaining control of the House later that year only 39% of the time; for the Senate, it's only 37% of the time. Clearly, losing the CBG is a significant electoral motivator.

The Congressional Baseball Game is tonight at Nationals Park in Washington, DC. First pitch is at 7:05pm. Tickets cost $10 and are available at

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

All Politics Is Cheddar

Some phrases are cliché because they're just true. Tip O'Neill's "all politics is local" is one of them. After all, people generally live their daily life entirely in their hometown—national politics are really only relevant when they intrude (welcome or not). Tip O'Neill's truism is the reason that, despite the national attention given to the gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin, I can guarantee that voters in America's Dairyland weren't thinking about anything outside their state's borders when they voted yesterday.

All the same, articles have already been written tying the result to national trends—namely, how President Barack Obama might expect to fare in Wisconsin in November. (For the record, despite some razor-thin margins there, Wisconsin hasn't gone to the GOP presidential candidate since 1984, when Ronald Reagan won every state but Minnesota.) John Ellis at Buzzfeed took it a step further—he sees the margin of Scott Walker's win as predictive of whether Obama will win an Electoral College majority nationally.

This notion fails both the theoretical test and the empirical one. Wisconsinites knew very well yesterday that they were voting in a specific gubernatorial election—how could they not, considering the extraordinary circumstances surrounding it? Some Senate and governor's elections, held on the same day as presidentials, are subject to the whims of coattails, but this was an unscheduled special election, brought on by a massive movement of signature gathering, motivated by an unprecedented attack on a major special interest. Anyone who has spent time in Wisconsin over the past 18 months knows that collective bargaining and general partisan nastiness dominate the political discussion there currently—not Bain, not Solyndra, not even the economy. The indelible uniqueness of this election—not only in Wisconsin, but unlike anything any state has ever seen before—voids any comparison to Obama-Romney.

In fact, there's at least as much reason to believe that Walker's win is a good omen for Obama. Last night's exit polls, flawed as they were at first, agreed with other pre-election surveys that there are a fair number of "Walker/Obama" voters who plan to split their tickets between now and November; in fact, 17% of Obama supporters testified that they were about to vote to keep the Republican governor in office. That is a sizable chunk of voters who are clearly not ignoring the unique and separate characteristics of the two campaigns; a leading theory is that some voters are simply uncomfortable with the idea of recalls. Whatever the reason, clearly voters find no qualms with considering a national race and a local race independently.

Yet so many people continue to baselessly insist that the two have an inescapable relationship. It's a similar phenomenon to Massachusetts's special senatorial election in January 2010, when Republican Scott Brown edged out Democrat Martha Coakley for the late Senator Ted Kennedy's seat. After Brown prevailed in deep blue Massachusetts, pundits saw it as a referendum on President Obama (who had campaigned for Coakley in Boston) and then patted themselves on the back when the Brown-presaged Republican landslide actually did come to pass in November 2010. However, they failed to notice that Massachusetts was one of the few states completely impervious to the GOP's wave election that year—Democrats held onto all 10 House seats and the governor's office despite many competitive races. That was because the Coakley-Brown election was simply a referendum on the candidates in that race—Brown an affable independent and Coakley a stiff, unloveable elitist whose disdain extended even to the state's beloved Red Sox. (This was before the Red Sox themselves became unloveable elitists.)

In 2010's Massachusetts, 2012's Wisconsin, and surely many other examples over the years, national pundits have sought to simplify the complicated political calculus of a million neighborhood issues into an easily relatable national message. On one hand, that's understandable—the national media must cover all 50 states, and it's impossible to keep each one's idiosyncrasies straight. But on the other, it's crucial to keep the proper perspective, and it's important for us (the digesters of that media) to remember that there is no substitute for local knowledge. It's why I urge folks to get their political news from local media sources—be one of the 500 followers of that small-town reporter on the state house beat. They're closer to the voters, and closer to the local decision-makers, too. You'll learn a lot that the national media misses.