In his blockbuster book Moneyball, Michael Lewis tells the story of Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane, who risks his entire career on a set of unproven statistical models to build a successful baseball club.
It’s a gripping tale, cited by millions as proof of how unconventional thinking and rigorous use of data can lead to great advantage in a very competitive world. We loved the book.
There’s only one problem: the entire premise is wrong.
The basis for the book is the 2002 baseball season, where the Oakland Athletics—with a paltry total salary of roughly $40 million—make it all the way to the deciding game of the American League Divisional Series. The reader is left with the impression that Beane really did excel in the best possible way—by outsmarting the competition—and that his adherence to the data made the difference.
But there was one better way to win in 2002, one that would have guaranteed more wins than even the scrappy Oakland Athletics received, even with the same budgetary limits as Billy Beane faced.
And that was to field a team of players using steroids.
It’s no coincidence that the Oakland Athletics did so well in 2002, as American League MVP was Miguel Tejada, Oakland’s starting shortstop. He has all but confessed to using steroids at the time. From 2000 to 2004, at least nine players on the Oakland A’s were actively using steroids, according to the Congressional investigation known as the Mitchell Report.
As a result, a truly savvy GM in baseball in 2002 wouldn’t have used either old-school scouting techniques that Moneyball argues are suboptimal, nor would they have used the advanced statistical modeling that Beane employed to find inefficiencies in the market for players. No, a good GM would have marshaled his resources to encourage his players to use steroids, or he would have sought out the players most likely to do steroids.
Obviously, there is a key difference here: steroids are nominally illegal to use in baseball. There were rules against steroid use, and even in those heady days, it was still considered a big no-no in the court of public opinion.
But the rules weren’t being enforced that much in the steroid era. And if the 2002 Oakland A’s are applauded for getting to the ALCS, then we should really applaud the Los Angeles Angels and the San Francisco Giants, who made it to the 2002 World Series.
The World Series in 2002 was a slugfest, with 85 runs scored combined, the highest amount in any World Series ever. The MVP of that series—Troy Glaus of the Los Angeles Angels—was almost certainly on steroids at the time. And the Giants had all-time home run leader and noted steroid-user Barry Bonds on their team. He walked 13 times over the course of 7 games, pitchers were so afraid to pitch to him.
So here’s the question: was Billy Beane an effective visionary? Or was he a sap playing by a set of rules that better teams weren’t following?
The temptation—of course—is to say that cheating is wrong, and that it doesn’t matter who ended up benefitting. All these players and their enablers should be ashamed.
But in a world where so many players are cheating—and getting away with it—what is your moral responsibility in trying to win a broken game? Do you play by the rules? Or do you play by the unwritten rules of the game?
It’s not an easy question to answer, especially when we begin to apply this lens to politics.
What if cheating meant—instead of a nice contract, a championship ring, and a parade—you got to pass universal healthcare? What if cheating meant control of the Supreme Court for a generation? What if cheating meant preventing the other side from doing what you perceive as serious harm to the nation?
What if breaking these soft, unenforced rules let you achieve the very things that got you into politics in the first place?
Not all of us would be able to resist these kinds of forces. You may personally hate it when other politicians and their operatives break the rules, but it feels very different when your side engages in the same behavior and wins. There’s a reason why Barry Bonds is still beloved in San Francisco despite all his cheating—Giants fans got to enjoy one of the greatest home-run hitters of all time in their own baseball park. That can never truly be taken away.
This aspect of cheating—that the gains stay with you even when getting caught—is even more explicit in out politics. After all, the very laws that govern our politics are written precisely by the winners of the game. It doesn’t matter what dirty trick you employ if you have the power to prevent any punishment. Even if you get caught, most of your winnings cannot be taken away. A President who resigns later doesn’t have to give up the bills he signed into law, his court appointments, or his executive orders. There must be millions of people who—when given the chance—would take a lifetime of scorn if it meant accomplishing just a hundredth of what a President can achieve.
And that’s the difference between Moneyball and Spitball—one philosophy that seeks to optimize the chance of winning through new thinking, the other by poking holes in the games and winning by explicitly breaking the rules—legal or otherwise.
And in many ways, it’s this evolution of how people “play by the rules” that has shaped our politics over the past two decades.
It was Karl Rove and the Bush reelection team of 2004 that instituted some of the micro-targeting, demographic-oriented politicking that seems so normal today. Team Obama in 2008 mobilized an army of volunteers to create one massive social movement bent on turning out voters of all ages and races. In 2012, Obama’s reelection team perfected the nascent art of “narrowcasting” and honing your message into thousands of different streams. These were all strategies that subverted the unwritten rules of politics to some degree, but largely kept within the dominant framework—find your supporters, motivate them, and turn them out.
But in 2016, the winning team didn’t have much of a ground game. The winning team didn’t raise all that much money. The winning team suffered gaffe after gaffe and put forward a deeply flawed candidate who seemed at times almost trying to lose the race. By all the conventional rules, the winning team should have lost.
But they didn’t lose. They won. Because while the rest of us were watching the polls, the money, the campaigns, the debates, and all the other traditional indicators, there was something else happening. Just like how few of us ever saw the hypodermic needles or the pills in baseball, only a handful of individuals saw the elements of a game—the most important game in American life—being completely changed.
This is the story of the people who—in breaking our politics—created the new rules that we all now live by.
A Brief History of the Spitball
Elmer Stricklett is an unlikely American hero. Born in 1876, Elmer was a minor struggling league pitcher who finally made it to the big leagues in 1904 playing for the White Sox. He would go 35-51 over his three years in the MLB, often featuring near the bottom statistically in the league. Normally, he would have been left to the footnotes of baseball history.
But Elmer did one amazing thing during his career in baseball. He pioneered the use of a pitch he learned from former teammates in the minor leagues. Elmer would use his own saliva to moisten the ball ahead of gripping it, and in the course of his normal fastball, the ball would swerve and snap in the air. It would buck and weave and give batters fits trying to follow its trajectory.
Elmer was not a selfish man, and he sought to share his new pitch with others. Fellow pitchers began taking Elmer up on his offer, and in time, they too started to try out this “spitball” for themselves.
Jack Chesbro of the New York Yankees started using the spitball immediately after learning the finer elements of the pitch from Elmer during the 1904 Spring Training. It worked out nicely for Chesbro—in that 1904 season, he became the first pitcher in American League history to win more than 40 games in a season. Ed Walsh of the Chicago White Sox would also clear the 40-win mark for a pitcher in 1908—who learned the spitball from Elmer during their brief time together on the White Sox in 1904.
To this day, Chesbro and Walsh are the only two American League pitchers ever to win more than 40 games in a single season. Their record still lives on more than 100 years later. They’re both in the Hall of Fame.
Elmer is not.
Eventually, the spitball became disreputable. In 1910, a player died when a tobacco spit-moistened pitch struck a batter in the head. And with team owners displeased with the low run scores of the dead-ball era of baseball, the pitch was eventually banned in 1920.
The spitball didn’t quite disappear after that. It simply went underground. Pitchers would employ nail files, smear Vaseline on their pants or cap, and use other tricks to achieve the same effect well into the 1980’s. But eventually, like all good cheating, it was supplanted by something more efficient and harder to detect—in baseball’s case, steroids.
But for a generation, the spitball was one of the defining elements of America’s pastime. It was Elmer’s world—he may not have invented it, but he did the next most important thing—he legitimized it, spread it, and wanted to see to take its rightful place in the game.
Today, we live in our own spitball era, but it applies far more to politics and than any sport. Ours is a political generation where the goal has become to win the game by mastering the quirks and unintended loopholes one can poke in the rules and their lack of enforcement. It is a time of swerving, buckling, careening, and often-undignified pitches being thrown at every batter in the game.
And if you can’t hit these spitballs, it’s the batter in the box—not the cheaters—who are struck out and get sent back to the dugout.
As one of our fathers would quip regularly growing up, “Son, cheaters always prosper. Why do you think they have so many rules against cheating?”
A New Spin on an Old Tradition
Cheating—of course—has a proud history in American politics. And that cheating has come in various shades of morality and legality over the centuries.
The founding of this nation largely rested on a few hundred men with little formal power breaking the laws and self-appointing themselves leaders in declaring independence. They took the old rules, threw them out, and declared themselves the rightful commissioners to make up new ones. And their carefully selected criteria of who could vote in this new democracy—generally land-holding white men—established that voter suppression and slavery were two one of those founding principles. In declaring their freedom from the one-sided governance structure of the British empire, the founders were—with great peril but also rather conveniently—substituting in their own set of rules that would preserve and promote their interests. It was brilliant, thoughtful, but—as they well knew—also treasonous and vulnerable to claims of illegitimacy.
In the 1824 presidential election, Andrew Jackson beat John Quincy Adams 43% to 31% in the popular vote. But without a majority of the electoral vote, the contest swung to the House, where Speaker John Calhoun threw the election to Adams, who in turn made Calhoun his Secretary of State. This “corrupt bargain”—while certainly within the framework of the Constitution—helped enshrine the idea that elected officials in America could simply point to the rules in making decisions clearly out of step with the spirit of the game. Each member of the House could have agreed to vote for Jackson as it was clearly the will of the people—but the greater standard of political self-interest held the day.
In the famous compromise of 1877, Democrat Samuel Tilden won a majority of the popular vote and 184 electoral votes, just one shy needed for the Presidency. But as the days went along and the votes in a few key states kept being counted, shenanigans ensued. This cheating included South Carolina reporting voter turnout at 101% the eligible population. In the end, the remaining 21 electoral votes went to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, after Republicans promised to remove federal troops from the South and effectively end Reconstruction. Cheating, in some ways, is ultimately at the heart of the most crucial events in American history.
Of course, it could be argued these examples are relatively “legal” forms of cheating. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of examples of outright election fraud in American history.
Lyndon Johnson was a part of two different cheating scandals, once the victor, and the other time as a loser. In 1941, Johnson lost the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senator from Texas after getting “outstolen” in terms of ballots—that’s how common voter fraud was. Having learned his lesson, in 1948, Johnson’s campaign for the same seat was able to stuff the ballot box to the tune of 20,000 votes, securing Johnson his party’s nomination by 87 votes, earning him the nickname Landslide Lyndon.
In more recent times, a flurry of legal activity instituted by local, state, and national Republicans led to 150 years of legal precedent being thrown out the window to halt the recounting of votes in the crucial swing state of Florida during the 2000 Presidential election. The eventual winner—George W. Bush—almost certainly lost in terms of actual votes cast in Florida to Al Gore.
So, cheating—legal or not—isn’t anything new. In fact, it’s deeply rooted in our nation’s political and social heritage.
But the old chicanery of stuffing ballot boxes and backroom deals and suppressing the vote—while still clearly there—aren’t the only games in town. All of these things you could do long before the internet, before social media, and before big data. Today’s cheating—the way in which we as everyday voters can be messed around with or our will ignored—feels very different than this. It seems rooted not just in altering the final count of voting totals and who is allowed to vote, but in altering the very ways in which we decide how to vote.
There’s a new element to cheating in today’s age. There’s a new spit on the ball.
Why So Many Politicians Talk Like Robots
J.C.R Licklider was a computer nerd before most people knew what a computer was. As a young man, he studied psychology and physics, eventually earning his PhD in 1942 in a niche field even by modern standards—psychoacoustics, the study of how human beings perceive sounds.
With one foot in the door of academia and another in the Pentagon during the Cold War, Licklider was literally in the room when the very basic underpinnings of the Internet were conceived, planned, and eventually built. As one of the founding fathers of ARPAnet—the forerunner to today’s Internet—Licklider earned the title “The Johnny Appleseed of computers.”
But for all of these massively impressive accomplishments, Licklider had an additional insight, one that was arguably as genius as his role in building the Internet itself.
Licklider was the first person to coin the phrase “narrowcasting.” His idea was simple—information in the early 20th century was homogenized and came from a few relatively established sources that simply broadcasted one way. But with the advent of the computer age, the dissemination of information would become more democratized, more interactive, and more diverse. As the man himself so bluntly stated it:
‘Here,’ stated Licklider, ‘I should like to coin the term “narrowcasting,” using it to emphasize the rejection or dissolution of the constraints imposed by commitment to a monolithic mass-appeal, broadcast approach.'”
But Licklider went one step further in this analysis. He understood that the more narrow the information stream, the more varied the total information stream would become. In other words, with 100 channels instead of four, there were essentially 25 times as many narratives that could be pushed. And the recipients of these narratives would be largely self-selecting—consumers would choose the ones they wanted, and producers would create the content to match those demands.
For politicians, this development produced an unusually different set of incentives. Instead of crafting one big series of proposals and narratives that could win over the broadest audience, it was now easier to try and create multiple narratives and push them out each individually. Holding several positions on every issue and trying to ensure each lane kept to itself became one of the most dominant messaging strategies.
Think of it this way: if a politician could make all of his pro-life constituents and all of his pro-choice constituents think he held their belief structure without letting the other side know, it would be a tremendous political advantage. They could have near 90% approval rating if carried out the right way. The perfect politician would hold every position without ever letting another voter realize it. They would narrowcast to each voter in isolation.
This “perfect politician” incentive helps explain why so many elected officials sound like they’re speaking another language when forced to explain where they stand on any issue. Whether on purpose or not, they have to consider the hundreds of different lanes that their remarks will get filtered and channeled down toward. Like a chess player, they have to quickly calculate all the possible pitfalls before them and avoid each one. They have to be extremely careful—the wrong phrase, the wrong analogy, or the wrong stance can beam out into a series of channels and bring decades of hard work down in an instant—even if most people would agree with their statement.
Imagine if you could control these twin powers of narrowcasting. Imagine if there were a series of tools that let you present a million messages, while also messing with your opponents by sending bending, bucking pitches down their channels.
Well, that technology exists today. And it makes up the very “spit” on the ball that has created our own era of politics.
It’s still the same game—but like the steroids era in baseball—you have to make sure you’re keeping your eye on the right target. The heart of politics doesn’t seem to be on the debate stage, or the campaign office, or in the state capitol. And neither does it seem to be in the party headquarters, the pollster’s office, or the other traditional backrooms. No, today’s politics seems rooted in the social media algorithm, the Macedonian content farm, the subreddit, the dog whistle, and the targeted Facebook ad. And if you can’t appreciate this development, you’ll be swinging at pitches destined to land in the catcher’s mitt.
Technology is the spit on the ball—the very same technology that is now inseparable from our paradoxically more interconnected, but less shared experience as Americans.
Where Donald Trump Learned to Throw Spitballs
The famous spitballers at the turn of the century had to learn their pitch from someone. So too did Donald Trump, which thankfully for us, was captured perfectly during Trump’s first run for President in 2000. It was here—in less than a year’s time—that the rookie saw a superior tactician best him in a live game. And the imprint on Donald Trump as a politician was deep, heartfelt, and incredibly profound.
It might not have been common knowledge to those who voted for him, but Donald Trump’s successful campaign for President in 2016 was not his first attempt at the highest office in America. He flirted with a Presidential bid on the Republican side in 1988, and in 2000, Trump actually pulled the trigger and—at least briefly—ran for President. This time, Trump sought the nomination of the Reform Party, which had carried Ross Perot on its ticket in the 1992 and 1996 cycles. Trump went so far as to form an exploratory committee, hire a senior team of campaign operatives including Roger Stone, and hit the interview circuit.
To this day, that brief campaign still gives us the most accurate picture of where Donald Trump learned the rules that came to govern his own political instincts and tactics.
That 2000 campaign—oddly enough—was probably what most people operating on the old rules of politics thought would happen to Donald Trump in 2016. In that brief 2000 campaign, the press ate up Trump’s act. They looked deeply into his personal life, suggesting a breakup with his girlfriend Melania Knauss—now the First Lady of the United States—was imminent. The Republican Party—worried that Trump’s antics might split the vote and throw the election to the Democrats—pressured Trump’s allies to force him out of the race. Most importantly, Trump was elbowed out by even more populist forces that distrusted Trump’s commitment to what they thought the party’s ideals should be.
In 2000, the Donald Trump of that race went by a different name. His name was Pat Buchanan, who ended up winning the Reform Party’s nomination over Donald Trump. And he’s arguably the most significant political player of the last 30 years to have never held public office.
As noted by NBC Political Correspondent Steve Kornacki in his book The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism, the nomination battle between Trump and Buchanan is particularly helpful in understanding our new politics. Consider the ways in which Donald Trump—the Reform Party’s frontrunner candidate—ended up getting bested by Pat Buchanan.
- In 2000, Donald Trump ran on universal healthcare, large tax cuts, being “totally for choice” when it came to abortion, opposition to NAFTA, and paying off the national debt. Buchanan—in contrast—took much more hardline stances on immigration, trade, and foreign policy. Even though Trump’s stances were broadly popular in a general election contest, in a primary, they were used to by Buchanan’s team to cast Trump as an establishment and untrustworthy ally.
- Trump would routinely attack Buchanan for being extreme on social issues, especially when it came to race, religion, and sexual orientation. As Trump once said on national television about Buchanan, “He’s a Hitler lover. I guess he’s an anti-Semite. He doesn’t like the blacks, he doesn’t like the gays.” In response, Buchanan cleverly used this line of attack to harden his base, label Trump as a part of the liberal media establishment, and leverage the kind of latent anti-political correctness prominent in our discourse today.
- Donald Trump never settled on a campaign slogan, but he did release a book during his run called The America We Deserve, focused on more conservative economic principles like reducing bureaucracy, expanding opportunity for business, and hard line views on China and Japan. Meanwhile, Pat Buchanan’s campaign slogan was “America First” and his campaign routinely used patriotic nationalism as the philosophic basis for Buchanan’s run.
- Buchanan understood how the nomination process itself would play out and worked to get his die-hard, highly motivated supporters to stack committees and isolate potential Trump supporters. With few power brokers to help regulate the process (Ross Perot had largely backed away at this point), Buchannan quickly realized he could take over the “Perot” faction of the Reform Party and poison the well so dramatically that Trump would look foolish to continue playing a rigged game. And that’s exactly what happened—when faced with the task of going up against a bad-faith, motivated minority of the Reform Party, Trump simply withdrew.
In the end, Trump’s bid lasted just four months. In that time, though, he learned quite a deal about the modern landscape of what it really meant to run for President as a complete outsider. These lessons obviously weighed heavily on Trump as he sought to run again later in his career:
- Running on a third-party ticket is a guaranteed way to lose.
- The media prefers to cover dog fights, not your ideas for governance.
- You can hide your own flaws by constantly pointing out the flaws in others.
- Pointing out the illegitimacy of your opponents is the best way to beat them.
- You only need a relatively small group of extremely passionate supporters (the crazier the better) to push parties in new and weird directions.
In many ways, Pat Buchanan is the Elmer Stricklett of our political generation. Though a relative minor leaguer with little success in the big leagues, Buchanan nonetheless pioneered many of the strategic elements that led to the Trump era. Trump learned these lessons not by Buchanan’s graceful teaching, but by getting clobbered by them.
Indeed, the untold gift of Donald Trump’s run in 2016 is that none of the other campaigns tried to pull a “Pat Buchanan” on Trump before he could to do it to them. Were a Chris Christie or a Scott Walker to set upon nuking Trump before he could do it to them, our politics may look very different today.
But there’s one very good reason why few others saw what Trump saw—they were playing in a different era. They knew the basic strategy—raise money, win endorsements, lay out bold policy proposals, give good speeches, get media hits—and were determined to win on those grounds. Jeb Bush—to his credit—probably ran the best 2000-era campaign since his brother.
But Trump learned a lot from that brief 2000 race, and you can see in hindsight his—well, maybe not exactly brilliance—wise recognition of the rules that would decide whether a Presidential run by someone like himself would be successful.
To be clear, simply internalizing the lessons of that 2000 race were no guarantee of future success. As Pat Buchanan himself proved, these tools alone don’t get you to the White House. There’s a big difference between knowing how to throw a spitball and going out and actually striking people out.
Something else had to happen in between 2000 and 2016 to allow Donald Trump to put these tools to use. Before he could become a major league pitcher, Trump had to pitch well enough to generate some demand for his services. It would take—well—a small miracle for someone already seen as a running punch line, mediocre businessman, and a budding reality television star to be seen as the stuff of American Presidents.
But then, in 2010, that small miracle did happen. One piece of technology, capable of being operated with just his two small hands, would give Trump a new lease on otherwise dead political life. It would turn the equivalent of a minor-league pitcher into a Cy Young candidate. It would give him the saliva he needed to throw the ball in a way that would confound his opponents and leave everyone else complaining about how he was befouling the game.
A tiny but great miracle happened on June 8, 2010.
Twitter became available as a mobile phone app—a revolutionary piece of software that never cost the billionaire and future President a single penny to download.
The era of the political spitball had begun. And technology would provide all the lubrication needed to make it spread to every corner of our civic discourse.