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.