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From the continuing annals of conventional wisdom proved wrong comes this — in professional football, a running play of three yards, rather than being the sign of offensive success, actually lowers a team’s chances of scoring on that possession, and therefore lowers the team’s chances of winning the game.

Fundamentally, this sounds wrong. Everybody loves the running game. Sit for 10 minutes at Sun Devil Stadium and you’ll hear at least two or three shouts of “Run the ball!” But according to Brian Burke in Slate magazine, running is actually overused in the NFL.

If football coaches are worshipers of the conventional wisdom, political thinkers are even more hidebound.

There’s a great list of things political insiders love that statistics and reality tend to disprove. One is the utility of campaign advertising — imagine a crowd of political fans yelling, “Run an attack ad!”

Attack ads, social science data shows, are memorable, but don’t particularly change voter opinions. No ads do, really (at least not the type of ads we continually see). Metrics matter more than moments, and turnout models mean more than slick bio spots.

Another implication of this football revelation is that the common cliché that winning teams run the ball is true, but not for the reason you think. Winning teams tend to be physically better than their opponents.

They run the ball better, true, but they also pass better. Teams that are already winning also tend to run more late in already decided games. Run plays, then, correlate to winning, but don’t cause winning.

Similarly, winning candidates usually win not because of their specific tactics, but because of the underlying fundamentals of the electorate, and because of their inherent strengths (most of which exist before the candidate ever enters a race).

There’s no real way to create the conditions necessary to win a political office, especially in high offices like the presidency and governorship. All you can do is pick the right race and raise enough money to turn out your voters.

Gaffe moments mean less than we think as well. Most do not alter the dynamics of a race.

Gov. Jan Brewer’s minute of silence in a gubernatorial debate didn’t matter because she was a Republican incumbent running in a Republican state in a Republican year. Republican presidential candidate and Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s difficulty counting to three doesn’t matter either — he was done before it happened.

But what about Tim Tebow, you ask? The presence of outliers must mean something.

In Tebow’s case, he is the desired proof that the power running game can win in the NFL, that a bruising ground game can carry a team that can’t pass, and that winning is fundamentally a matter of being a winner.

In politics, this is the insurgent campaign, the glorious throwback.

But Tebow’s winning streak, modest as it is, has come on the back of his team’s defense, and his success will depend on how well he can throw the ball (which, incidentally, he did more efficiently than the Jets’ Mark Sanchez in Thursday’s much-discussed win). He can’t avoid statistical reality forever.

Just like at the lower levels of football, wider variance of skills and techniques makes campaigning for lower office more wide open. Unconventional tactics work because the voter pool is smaller.

But at the national level, politics is about picking the right race, raising more money and turning out voters.

At least, until someone invents the political forward pass.


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