Revolutionary changes to any industry rarely happen in one sudden moment. More often they are characterized by a few early adopters, followed by denial and rejection of the future by the status quo, and then an eventual acceptance of the new world by the masses.
In the book and subsequent movie “Moneyball,” this revolutionary change in baseball is told in the context of the emergent use of data. Technological advances allowed data to be used as a disruptive force, changing the way everyone looked at how the game is played.
For more than a century, baseball was defined by a relatively small handful of metrics to determine the success of baseball players. Very few data points, such as win-loss records, batting averages and ERA’s, were used to predict future outcomes. More often than not the “intangibles” of a baseball player were as important as his statistics – for example, an attractive girlfriend could tell you how confident he was. Advanced analytics and algorithms have made these crude data points less and less effective at predicting the future.
Politics is now undergoing similar changes in the era of big data. Because politics is fundamentally a relationship business, it has historically been among the least innovative industries, relying on only the most elementary voter data to explain political outcomes. But as the nature of all human relationships change in the era of big data and social media, politics is now changing as well. To understand that change you have to understand that, just like in baseball during the last century, politics has been trying to use very limited data to explain far too many things.
Until recently, political data have been used much like baseball data were used between the 1880s and the 1980s. It has focused almost exclusively on voting behavior since that was the only data that was kept. Little to no data have historically been kept on politicians – especially at the local and regional levels of government.
The problem with this is that using voter data to determine policy outcomes is akin to using data on baseball fan behavior to determine the outcome of baseball games – there’s very little correlation between the two. Moreover, at a time when less than 10 percent of legislative seats are competitive between both parties and voter turnout is declining dramatically, voter data are a very small and shrinking indicator of what is actually happening in our political system. It’s certainly very limited when it comes to the policy process. It’s even more limited when trying to determine policy or representation trends changing the state beyond the Capitol.
Today, data allow us to predict voting behavior among policymakers on a much broader scale than ever before. What any good lobbyist knows intuitively about a handful of legislators is now possible among hundreds, even thousands, of policymakers across the state. For example, we can now use advanced analytics to predict with great accuracy how many mayors, council members, county supervisors and school board members will vote on a wide array of topics – plastic bag bans, soda taxes, fracking restrictions, charter school movements, Airbnb and Uber restrictions, prevailing wage ordinances, minimum wage increases, medical marijuana dispensaries and payday loan restrictions, to name just a few.
As a result, data are allowing us to move and shape public policy beyond 120 legislators in Sacramento to a much bigger playing field of 2,700 mayors and council members, 280 county supervisors and nearly 5,000 school board members. We can now identify hundreds of local policymakers supportive of virtually any issue and begin to create policy changes faster, cheaper and more efficiently than ever before.
Just as in “Moneyball,” early adopters are seeing great success. Smaller, less monied interests are beating bigger opponents they would have no hope of challenging in the state Capitol by ignoring the Legislature and shaping public policy at the local level. The recently passed ban on single-use plastic bags is just one example. The ban finally received legislative approval only after 130 local jurisdictions passed bans that covered a third of the state’s population. The Legislature was essentially responding to a policy that was already taking shape.
By expanding data and advanced metrics beyond voter files to actual policymakers at the state and local level, smart political consultants and lobbyists are literally changing how the game is played.
Thirty years ago, expanding the types of data kept and better understandings of how it could be used allowed small-market teams with little money to dominate large, powerful franchises in baseball. This is precisely what is happening in politics today. What was once derided in the sports industry as an impossibility is now the central focus of every team in Major League Baseball.
So will politics ultimately have its “Moneyball” moment?
In California, it already has.
Mike Madrid is a partner at GrassrootsLab, a political research and data firm in Sacramento. He is also an avid baseball fan.