Mehlman’s Moneyball

Adam Nagourney, national political correspondent for The New York Times profiles Republican Party Chairman, Ken Mehlman, in today’s Magazine section. It’s a flattering portrayal of a compassionate and intelligent young man. The article makes Mehlman look quite a bit more liberal than many mainstream members of his party. He actively courts African-American and Hispanic voters for one, something he claims the Democrats take for granted. But we’ll leave his politics alone for the moment and instead examine his marketing accumen.

If there is a defining characteristic to Mehlman and his tenure as Republican national chairman, it is his fascination with the communications and technological revolution that is sweeping American politics. This has produced once-unimaginable new ways to track down potential voters, by predicting voting habits based on where Americans live and the cars they drive and the magazines they read, and delivering tailored messages to different segments of an overly saturated electorate. Mehlman’s chairmanship has become an argument for the notion that the garrulous and instinctual political boss may be all but obsolete in this age of supersophisticated polling, data mining, niche marketing and microtargeting. In an arena that seems to value instinct, bravado, gall and undisciplined excess, Mehlman is empirical and deliberative. Why should a campaign manager direct resources based on a hunch when there is consumer data that can flush out Republicans living deep in Democratic enclaves? Why guess when you can measure what words will be most persuasive to the middle-class exurbanite voter marching on the StairMaster (watching, no doubt, the Republican ad that the Bush campaign placed on the closed-circuit gym channel after realizing that its voters were no longer at home watching the network news)?
When Mehlman talks about politics, he doesn’t talk about Machiavelli; he talks about “Moneyball,” Michael Lewis’s book about how the Oakland A’s employed statistical modeling to assemble a powerhouse baseball team, sending to pasture the old-line scouts with their years of calling it from their guts. “We are the party of ‘Moneyball!”’ Mehlman proclaimed, practically shouting and bouncing on the balls of his feet, talking to a room of slightly bewildered Republicans in California last year. “They measured everything. We are doing the same thing in politics.”

I know Ken. I was a year older than him at Franklin & Marshall. I brought him on board The College Reporter, first as a reporter, then as assistant news editor. Of course, I have not seen him in years and I oppose pretty much everything he’s worked so hard for, but I have to credit his determination and skill.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.