In a year with no end of explanations for the rise of Donald Trump, one of the best comes from a book about baseball, published 15 years ago.
Voting, after all, happens in baseball, too. In his 2001 book “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract,’’ baseball writer, sabermetrics guru, and Boston Red Sox consultant Bill James considered the case of how infielder Rafael Palmeiro was elected to a title he didn’t deserve: the 1999 Gold Glove for best defensive first baseman in the American League. Palmeiro that season had played only 28 games at first base. Not only wasn’t he the best defensive first baseman in the American League, James tells us, “he wasn’t even the best defensive first baseman on his own team.”
The bad decision wasn’t the result of an uninformed electorate — the vote came from the league’s managers and coaches. It was, James concluded, “a badly designed voting system,” and such a system “will fail sometimes, no matter who votes.” The Gold Glove was based on “an unconstrained plurality,” which means (1) “a voter can vote for anybody” and (2) “If the top vote-getter gets 15 percent of the vote, he wins, the same as if he had received 80 percent.”
James called that voting structure “an open invitation to an eccentric outcome.” And then, the eye-popping conclusion: “If the United States were to use a system like this to elect the president, the absolutely certain result would be that, within a few elections, someone like David Duke, Donald Trump, or Warren Beatty would be elected president.”
Trump, of course, swept through the early primaries against as many as 10 opponents — an unconstrained plurality if ever there was one — eking out victories by slim percentages. (And of course, there’s the reemergence of Duke, the poison lagniappe of this particular stat gumbo.)
Fans on James’s website had begun talking about Palmeiro-Trump as early as last spring, when the NBC Sports site picked it up. In a telephone interview, James said although he’d forgotten the particulars of the Palmeiro piece, “I’ve made the argument in several places that voting structures matter.” And yes, “primaries are an unconstrained plurality,” but “the general election is not.” When presented with the parallels to the old Gold Glove voting system, he said, “I think it is a similar problem – that there were so many candidates in the field that it made it possible for a person who couldn’t have won in a limited field to come forward.”
But James, who has “always despised Donald Trump,” doesn’t have any easy solutions. “How do you design a voting structure that will consistently deliver candidates that both can win and also represent the values of the party? I think that’s actually a hard question.”
His Gold Glove solution was relatively simple: (1) Create some “loose statistical limits” on eligibility (no 28-game players); (2) let a subgroup of voters, “a panel of experts,” narrow the field; (3) use “weighted ballots” for first, second, and third choice.
Superdelegates, for instance, could represent an expert subgroup. James makes a pitch for the weighted ballot, in part because it “collects more information” on which to base an ultimate decision.
These days, weighted ballots are used for Major League Baseball awards like the Cy Young and MVP. Still, James says, as far as primaries go, such a structure is “so far outside the American tradition of political voting that I don’t expect to see that happen in my lifetime.”
And besides, that system isn’t perfect either. In an e-mail, James said that Pedro Martinez had more first-place votes in the 1999 MVP election than Ivan Rodriguez, but Rodriguez won by doing better in second- and third-place votes. Any nonvoting member of Red Sox Nation has to think: “We wuz robbed!” James doesn’t disagree: “Yeah, that bothered me, too. I wish there was an example that had the Holy Players on the right side.” Or, at least not Trump.