Any Old Genius Can't Always Be a Political Genius

Politics is one of those industries, like writing and coaching professional sports teams, where everyone thinks they could do it better than the pros, without any practice, any training, or any real-world experience.

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Politics is one of those industries, like writing and coaching professional sports teams, where everyone thinks they could do it better than the pros, without any practice, any training, or any real-world experience. This week, we have accounts of multiple guys who are extremely successful in their chosen field trying out as political strategists: baseball genius Bill James, computer genius Steve Jobs, casino genius Sheldon Adelson. But as Michael Jordan found out when he tried baseball, and Tyra Banks found out when she tried singing, and Ethan Hawke found out when he tried writing, just because you're really good at one thing doesn't mean you'll be good at a different thing.

N+1 editor Keith Gessen explained this phenomenon in another context in a podcast last month:

"You reach a certain age and all your friends who became doctors or lawyers all of a sudden they pop up again… and say, 'I wrote a novel. Can you help me get it published?' And you just want to say to them, 'Go back 10 years, or 15 years, and instead of being a lawyer or a doctor, become a writer. Because I don't show up to your office… we don't show up at the doctor's office and start performing surgery…'"

Bill James -- you might know him as the Moneyball guy -- gave an interview to the Huffington Post Friday, explaining how he'd take sports state number-crunching expertise and apply it to political candidates. James gives advice to all kinds of businesses, and it's probably great. As The Atlantic Wire has noted before, baseball is great for number-crunching, because there are so many games played by so many teams with so many players. But election statistics aren't as reliable. Presidential elections happen, of course, every four years -- so even when people begin a sentence with the impressive-sounding clause, "In every presidential election since 1960…" they are only talking about 13 contests. That may be one reason James abandons his numbers-oriented method when it comes to politics, and instead looks at message:

"If you're outspent in a campaign, what you absolutely cannot do is start a pissing contest, pardon my French… If you're outspent and you start talking about your opponent being corrupt and senile, you're in BIG trouble, because he's got a lot more guns than you have...

Talk about your opponent in the nicest terms that you CAN, in order to take certain weapons away from him… If you're speaking well of your opponent and your opponent is savaging you, there is a chance he comes off looking like an ass and you can win the election."

The biggest weapon a well-funded candidate has against a lesser-known challenger? It's called "ignoring him." We actually have a recent case-study: Jon Huntsman. Huntsman was reportedly the candidate the White House feared the most -- Obama was so scared of him he appointed him to be ambassador to China in 2009 -- and yet Huntsman's candidacy went nowhere. He opened his campaign with a promise of civility. His ads portrayed him as a different kind of candidate -- the kind who rides motorcycles. The press was interested; Republican voters were not. His best result was third place in New Hampshire.

James also suggested a candidate start talking about a niche issue. In Kansas, say, where people hit deer with their cars all the time, maybe talk about that. "If a candidate for office starts talking about thinning the deer population or investing in barriers to reduce the number of deer on the highways, the other side will probably just ignore him, because they're not going to know what to say about it," James told the Huffington Post. "But there is a chance that the issue will resonate with voters in an unexpected way."

Let's think about another case study: Jim Webb. Webb was the underdog in his race against Virginia Sen. George Allen in 2006. Webb was famously a little weird: really into Scots-Irish heritage and prison reform based on the Japanese criminal justice system. Are these issues what set Webb apart from Allen, allowing him to win 49.6 percent to Allen's 49.2 percent? Probably not. It was Democratic year. Democrats won majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1994. And Virginia is getting more Democratic demographically. (Also, Allen said something stupid and probably racist, and it was caught on camera.) Webb certainly didn't appear to think he won thanks to his unusual interests. Once in office, he pushed through the most mainstream legislation possible: the post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which pays for the college tuition of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

When Obama campaign manager Jim Messina met with Steve Jobs and Jobs "tore into" him about "all the White House was doing wrong," as Businessweek's Joshua Green reports, it's unlikely Messina responded, "Well that's interesting, Steve. Now it's my turn: Here's how you make a really cool portable electronic device…" After the yelling, Green reports Jobs offered some good advice. It was about something Jobs is actually an expert in:

"Last time you were programming to only a couple of channels," Jobs told him, meaning the Web and e-mail. "This time, you have to program content to a much wider variety of channels—Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, Google—because people are segmented in a very different way than they were four years ago." When Obama declared for president, the iPhone hadn’t been released. Now, Jobs told him, mobile technology had to be central to the campaign’s effort. "He knew exactly where everything was going," Messina says. "He explained viral content and how our stuff could break out, how it had to be interesting and clean."

But last fall, Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs biography revealed Jobs also had some bad advice for Obama. "You're headed for a one-term presidency," he reportedly told Obama, adding that the president had to become more business-friendly. Maybe both of those things are true, but changing the latter wouldn't necessarily change the former. A vast majority of swing voters say they don't "admire rich people," a Pew poll found recently. A similar supermajority wants to raise taxes on the rich. Jobs also complained to Obama that it was easier to build factories in China than in America, where there are too many "regulations and unnecessary costs." Politics aside, just to point out the obvious here: In China, where there are fewer burdensome regulations, Apple's factories were infamously so horrible they had to build suicide nets around them.

Then there's Sheldon Adelson (pictured with his wife above center, at the groundbreaking of a Macau complex that included the "Shangri-La Hotel"). This week, the billionaire said his donations to support Mitt Romney will be "limitless," Forbes reported, and he and his wife started off with a  $10 million to Romney's Super PAC. Adelson says he wants to do "whatever it takes" to defeat Obama.  But let's not forget that earlier this year, Adelson seemed to think that what it took to defeat Obama was as much as $100 million in donations for the third-most ridiculous candidate of the Republican primary, Newt Gingrich. (He ended up giving only $21.5 million.) "What scares me is the continuation of the socialist-style economy we’ve been experiencing for almost four years," Adelson told Forbes's Steven Bertoni earlier this year. "That scares me because the redistribution of wealth is the path to more socialism, and to more of the government controlling people’s lives." But where is the wealth being redistributed? To Sheldon Adelson! As Bertoni points out:

Adelson, ironically, has made more money during the Obama administration than just about any other American, based on Forbes tabulations. He had previously told me that just because he made money under Obama, it doesn’t mean he thinks the president is doing the right thing.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.