Worst to first in playoffs and politics

One of the many reasons why I love baseball is because the season itself is an opponent. Players have to live and breathe baseball while getting along with their teammates for eight straight months—close to nine with the postseason. The teams that do well not only have great players, but good “clubhouse” people too. Not one of the 43 ESPN Baseball prognosticators picked the 2013 Red Sox contending for the AL East this year, forget about winning it going away and securing home field advantage throughout the playoffs. And how could they have predicted it? As the cliché says, the season is a marathon, not a sprint.

The 2014 race for governor seems to be shaping up the same way. We’re more than a year away from election day, a major candidate has dropped out of the race and others, while unannounced, are jockeying for position. I’m not going to predict a winner or even handicap the race but I do know that just like the 2013 Red Sox, early polls don’t matter and the only thing that counts are the numbers on the board the day after.

In 1990 I was a college student and wanted to work on a political campaign. I joined the Sundlun campaign in June as an opposition researcher and planned a long summer of poring over purchasing records and the tax rolls at Providence City Hall. Sundlun had been the sacrificial lamb for the Democrats in 1986 and nearly upset DiPrete in 1988, so in 1990 he looked forward to being the party’s nominee. Two young mayors, Joe Paolino in Providence and Frank Flaherty from Warwick also saw the embattled DiPrete on the ropes and jumped into the race, creating a three-way primary.

Heading into the party convention at the end of June, we knew that Sundlun was behind the other candidates in state central committee votes and there was some talk that Sundlun may drop out of the race. Mayor Paolino won the endorsement and had the support of key labor unions, but a well-timed poll showed that the outsider message would resonate with Rhode Island voters and so Sundlun doubled-down and stayed in the race.  The campaign centered on a massive field effort that would be key to turning out “our” voters. More than 160,000 Rhode Islanders voted in the Democratic primary in 1990—the highest turnout ever for a September primary—and the rest is history.

So as election season gets rolling and the chatter about “who’s ahead” starts, I’m going with “who cares.” Just as preseason baseball predictions are once again shown to be meaningless, the only poll that counts is the one taken on Election Day. Just ask Governor Paolino and the 2013 AL East Champion Toronto Blue Jays (not).

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