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Let's play some presidential moneyball

- July 27, 2015

Who is the Pedro Martinez of presidential success? The Craig Biggio? (Mike Groll/AP).
Yesterday, Red Sox great Pedro Martinez and three other pretty decent ballplayers were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.. This would not appear to be an obvious opening for a Monkey Cage post, except that (a) it’s summer; (b) despite your suspicions of academic types, we at this blog love apple pie, motherhood and baseball  (though sadly, Josh Tucker is a Mets fan); and (c) this actually connects to a post I wrote last winter about measuring presidential leadership.
To reprise: Back in February, in honor of Presidents’ Day and in describing a new set of presidential rankings calculated by political scientists Justin Vaughn and Brandon Rottinghaus, I ranted (gently) about the rating enterprise generally. After all, most such rankings fall far short of providing reliable metrics that help compare our chief executives in an apples-to-apples way. As I noted then, “presidential rankings are short in sabermetrics, and often in nuance…. We’re stuck with counterfactuals, when slugging percentage and fielding range — or better yet, ‘wins above replacement’ — would be much more satisfying things to know.”
I mentioned “sabermetrics” then as shorthand for advanced statistical measures of hard-to-measure skills and attributes – specifically, those derived by members of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABRE) for use on the baseball diamond. It is defined by its progenitors as the “search for objective truth about baseball.” Amazingly, the narrative skills of Michael Lewis enabled this quest, and its application to the roster of the Oakland Athletics, to become a halfway decent feature film starring Brad Pitt, based on Lewis’s book Moneyball.
Nearly as amazingly, it turns out that at least two sets of scholars have been working on addressing my very complaint regarding “objective truth.” (Might I suggest that in the film based on this post, I be played by James Spader? Sorry, Brad.)
The idea of wins above replacement is in fact the basic premise of a book by Harvard Business School professor Gautam Mukunda. In Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, he argues that sometimes you can plug another player into a given position and get the same results. But sometimes your player — your leader, your president — has an extraordinary “win above replacement” value. When?
Mukunda argues that leaders can be classified as either extreme or modal. The extreme ones make the difference — and we can get a sense of the likelihood of leaders’ placement on the distribution by determining if they are “filtered” or “unfiltered” by previous experience in the system they are to lead. For presidents, this normally means past experience in “filtering offices.”  Mukunda’s unfiltered presidents include Lincoln, the Roosevelts and Washington — but also Andrew Johnson, Pierce and Harding.
Thus they wind up at the top, but also at the bottom, of the standard historians’ rankings. In short, they had a strong impact, for good or ill. This both supports and challenges hall-of-fame presidency scholar Richard Neustadt’s notion in his 1960 book Presidential Power that the presidency is “no place for amateurs.”
So does another application of Neustadt, this time from the literature seeking to assess presidential success in Congress. Political scientists Jon Bond and Manny Teodoro of Texas A&M, in their 2015 Midwest Political Science Association conference paper, present “A Sabermetric Analysis of Neustadt’s Skills Hypothesis: or, Why Ronald Reagan is like Bobby Cox and Lyndon Johnson is like Joe Torre.”
Here, the authors apply SABRE czar Bill James’s method of Pythagorean Expectations to an argument about presidential skill. Just as there are some managers who get more out of their team’s mix of stars and waiver-bait, are there certain presidents who achieve more than one would expect, given political context? Are there presidents with a high rate of Wins Above Expectations (WAE)?  “A president who faces hostile majorities in Congress is like a manager of a team full of poor hitters and soft-tossing pitchers who struggle to throw strikes,” Bond and Teodoro write. “Under such conditions, any roll call wins at all might be evidence of great presidential political skill, even if the president’s actual winning percentage is low.”
Neustadt argued that presidents’ reputations for “skill and will” would have an impact on their ability to exercise power, that is, their influence over governmental outcomes. He did not link this directly to congressional roll call votes, but there is certainly something intuitive about the idea that more skilled presidents should do better in Congress than less skilled presidents. Indeed, much journalistic commentary is dedicated to this; but much political science commentary is dedicated to casting doubt. The first problem is that skill is hard to measure; the second, not unrelated, is that more than two decades of quantitative research has failed to find any systematic link between the two. Most people agree that LBJ was more skilled politically than Jimmy Carter, for example, but neither of them show extraordinary levels of legislative success using standard models based on variables like the partisan makeup of Congress, presidential approval and levels of polarization.
Thus Bond and Teodoro turn, partly out of curiosity, to different methods. The paper concedes that the idea here still requires much refinement — but it does find some interesting results. For instance, using the WAE method instead of the more usual models shows that Republican presidents do better than Democrats overall — again, relative to objective expectations — with Eisenhower the exception at the bottom of the pack (see Table 2 in their paper, which you should read if only for the presidential baseball cards at the end.) Ronald Reagan emerges as the most successful legislative president by this measure. LBJ is at the top of the Democratic pile, but in the middle overall.
Bond and Teodoro conclude by reprising the “Moneyball” argument between the statisticians and the scouts. They argue that Reagan may be analogous to Bobby Cox, the long-time Braves manager  and a darling of the sabermetric set. LBJ, by contrast, still looks good to the old-time scouts — interestingly, the paper finds little correlation between scholars’ rankings of presidents’ legislative success and their WAE.
Perhaps, like the hugely successful Yankees manager Joe Torre, LBJ was expected to win. But the fact that he did still matters, when it comes to the Hall of Fame.