It didn’t take long to realize just exactly what he had inherited. “It wasn’t a 21st-century operation,” he said. They had suffered years of terrible losses marked by a few wins. There was a desire to make next year the year, every year. Always promising they were close and giving excuses for why victory slipped away. The leaders were aging. The technology was lagging. There was no common strategy that linked the entire organization. Money was being spent ineffectively.
No, this isn’t an account of the current state of the Democratic party, but it easily could be. Rather, it’s the state of the Chicago Cubs when Theo Epstein took over in late 2011—as described, albeit paraphrased, by him. But it might as well be a depiction of the Democratic Party today.
What Epstein and his team did, what they prioritized, and how they broke a 108-year curse can serve as a playbook for the left.
Major League Baseball is built on a foundation of minor league teams, young players, scouts, dingy stadiums, and unglamorous training facilities. It’s not sexy, receives little press coverage, and doesn’t exactly pack stadiums. Yet from these overlooked ranks, the major league teams are born. When Epstein took over as president of the Cubs in 2011, his first priority was rebuilding the minor leagues—acquiring young talent to set the team up for success in the long term. The Cubs lost badly the first three years he was in the job, but the minor league teams were experiencing a renaissance.
In the US government, the minor leagues are the states. The work done at the state level goes unnoticed, rarely appears in your newsfeed, and doesn’t typically attract major donors. But the decisions made there—from voting rights to healthcare to gun rights—shape the federal landscape; the talent that gets elected there tends to be called up to major offices. Obama was a state senator, Clinton a governor, Barbara Boxer a Marin County Supervisor, and Lincoln a member of the Illinois House of Representatives.
So, what’s the problem? While the Democrats held the presidency from 2008 to 2016, they were getting absolutely decimated at the state level. In the four election cycles over those eight years, the Democrats suffered a net loss of 900 seats.
In 2009, the Democrats controlled two or three of the major state bodies (state house, senate, or governorship) in 66% of states. Today, the balance of power at the state level has completely flipped, and the Republicans now control the majority of bodies in 66% of states.
As long as they held the presidency, the Democrats largely wrote off the states. This was, and is still, a colossal error for a host of reasons. Atop the list is that in most states, the state legislature controls the decennial redistricting process—the drawing of the maps—at the state and national level. This means the states draw the districts maps for the US House of Representatives. The Republicans understood this, and gerrymandered their way into control.
Take Virginia as one example. The current governor is a Democrat, as were six of their last nine. Both their senators are Democrats, and Virginia has voted for the Democratic candidate in the last three presidential elections. But because of the way their state and federal districts are drawn, only four of their 11 House of Representatives members are Democrats, and their state House of Delegates is 66/34 Republican—meaning they are one seat away from the Republicans having a super majority.
Continuing to ignore state and local campaigns is akin to ignoring minor league teams. You have no talent to set the team up for success over the long term.
At the Red Sox, the first MLB team turnaround Epstein led, he learned that any organization hoping to operate as a team needs a common doctrine. This meant creating The Cubs Way early on in his tenure: a bible of sorts that defines what it means to be a Cub, from the vision of the organization to their attitudes toward success and failure to their approach to base stealing. It was the the way for the entire organization, from the Dominican Summer League to Double-A and all the way up to the big leagues. The organization wrote it together with input from coaching and players from every rung of the organization.
Where is The Democratic Way? What are the common goals and the agreed-upon strategy for accomplishing them? Winning, to be clear, is not enough. That doesn’t bond people for long periods of time. For everyone from the operatives to the consultants to the candidates to the voters , the Democrats need a Way that’s forged and agreed to by representatives from all parts of the party, including the voters.
Once the Cubs codified the values of the organization, they focused on the talent—who to bring in, who to let go, and how to develop the talent they had. Like baseball in the 1990s, political scouting is still very much done by “an expert eye.” Yes, demos and some traditional numbers play a role, but beyond that, it’s just a few people deciding who will run and who will be supported.
Epstein didn’t want hunches and subjective judgements to have the last word, but he also knew data didn’t tell complete stories. So he combined new data analysis techniques with the traditional scouting lens. Both qualitative and quantitative evaluations have value, and the Democrats need to start taking both into account when assessing the strengths and weaknesses of candidates. This includes being open to new methods of evaluation.
Player development is just as important. In the last six months of running Tech for Campaigns, I’ve had incredulous “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” moments on a regular basis. One of those was when I found out that there does not seem to be any common set of training materials or resources—digital or otherwise—for the entire Democratic Party. Not for current elected officials, not for those who want to run, not for campaign managers—no one. Training on everything from public speaking to fundraising to digital should be a fundamental service that the party offers.
Once in a while, your team’s performance is so devastatingly poor that it jolts you into seeing things differently. You realize you’re not cursed—your strategy and organization are just flawed. And it’s in these rare moments that you get permission to truly rebuild. Not to pivot, as we say in the startup world, but to reinvent.
The opportunity for reinvention is a silver lining of the 2016 cycle. It’s the same silver lining that Epstein took advantage of with the Cubs. He chose to build from the bottom up, realizing change begins there. He codified a vision, a set of values, and a plan that unified the organization from top to bottom. He recruited talent and then gave them the training and resources to succeed. By doing these things he not only broke a 108 year losing streak—he built an enduring organization. The Democrats would do well to follow this playbook.