Thursday, July 07, 2005

Sun Tzu and Opposition Research Strategy: Part III

This is a special Grits series on opposition research. See Parts I and II.

Campaigns that use both an oppo researcher and a pollster can utilize the full range of research tools available to modern campaigns, but in a heated race, opinion polls cannot replace an opposition researcher.

A poll is a measurement-based, not an intuitive instrument. It cannot synthesize material, nor make strategic judgments. It can't follow a lead. That said, if many campaigns today rely too heavily on polling instead of paying human beings to research issues, it must be at least in part because too few opposition researchers understand that their task has an artistic, not just a perfunctory, component.

The world of politics is dynamic, and one's approach to campaign research and its uses must be flexible, always situation-specific, like a sculptor working with found objects. Adaptation, to use Sun Tzu's phrase, ideally focuses a researcher's artistry on the needs of each specific campaign. Cookie-cutter research packages that apply the same approaches and often the same slogans to campaign after campaign don't just make the public cynical, they make political operative cynical as well. Good campaign researchers make sure their research fits in with, supplements, and provides new opportunities for the overall campaign plan.

Sun Tzu urged generals to examine five areas regarding the conflict, comparing their own circumstances, honestly analyzed, to their opponents, and to produce a "strategic assessment" before identifying one's strategy. An oppo researcher studies essentially the same subjects. They are: "The Way," the weather, the terrain, leadership, and discipline. By examining these factors (or their modern-day equivalents), "victory can be discerned, but not manufactured." The same is true of political campaigns, and the fundamental job of an opposition researcher is to generate information that informs victorious strategies.

"The Way means inducing the people to have the same aim as the leadership," said Sun Tzu. The Way identifies forces of ideology, interest, and institutional inertia, and uses them to assist in achieving one's goals. In a modern context, the opposition researcher should think of "The Way" as a campaign's strategic message, both positive, negative and how they fit together with the campaign's organization and communications strategy. Those are the tools campaigns use to induce the public to have the same aim as the candidate.

The weather can be a factor in elections - ask anyone who lost an election because late afternoon showers dampened after-work voting. But the opposition researcher might also consider the weather in Sun Tzu analogous to two factors: the vicissitudes of current events and public opinion, both of which in some seasons simply storm at the wrong time, for reasons beyond anyone's control. In most campaigns of any size, some of these storm clouds can be forecast by opinion polling, while other events can be anticipated only with timely information, combined with the experience and intuition. In either case, folksinger Bob Dylan was right: You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. You need an opposition researcher, and a good pollster.

"The terrain is to be assessed in terms of distance, difficulty or ease of travel, dimension, or safety," wrote Master Sun. But terrain may also be thought of in terms of the mass communications field - as the terms of debate, the rhetorical terrain defined by ideologies and interests that constrain how various issues are discussed. When Sun Tzu urges generals to seize the high ground, or to charge narrow gaps in a pass if they're undefended, the same advice applies handily to those charged with a campaign's message and rhetoric. The best opposition messages are framed to acquire rhetorical high ground for one's candidate in direct contrast to an opponent's particular weakness.

Assessments of difficulty and ease of travel still apply in larger districts - some Texas state senate districts now stretch hundreds of miles. But the modern campaign equivalent of Sun Tzu's concerns are communications costs - if direct mail costs $.60 per piece, while paid door-to-door canvassing costs $2 per household hit but is more effective, which strategy should you choose? How expensive will it be to deliver a negative attack, and will it influence enough people to win? Are there enough like-minded donors willing to finance the campaign plan that's needed? These are parts of the political terrain in which we all operate.

"Leadership is a matter of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and sternness," Sun Tzu said. Nothing about that sentence has changed in the intervening millennia, and the qualities of people chosen as strategist, campaign manager, communications specialists or other positions quite often makes or breaks campaigns. But knowing the leadership in a political campaign also means knowing everything that's possible to know about the candidates, or, in an issue campaign, the people and interest groups on various sides of an issue. Discovering all this is the job of the opposition researcher, just as in the world of foreign affairs, spies and diplomats provide (sometimes faulty) information to modern generals and civilian leaders.

Finally, "discipline means organization, chain of command, and logistics," combined with a clear system of rewards and punishments. All these are important in campaigns, but today we must add message discipline to that list. Message discipline is important for delivering attacks, but even more important for responding to them. Sometimes not attacking when you want to, especially when you or your candidate are angry, requires the most discipline of all.

To summarize: Ideology and interest create the terrain in which modern mass communications operate, just as the location of deserts, rivers, hills and valleys dictate military strategies, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or ancient China. Meanwhile, events and public opinion, like the weather, wash across that terrain over time, creating erosion that can undermine one's base even on high ground, while the eroding silt creates islands where once raged an impassable stream. The qualities of leadership and discipline are forever in short supply, and should be valued as highly today as in Sun Tzu's time. But most important of all these is identifying "the Way," that is, the combination of message, strategy and tactics that allows a campaign to navigate the terrain, account for the weather, manage the strengths and weakness of both its leaders and its troops, and retain the support of the people to succeed.

By analyzing these factors, Sun Tzu said, victory can be discerned but not manufactured. "The one who figures on victory at headquarters even before doing battle is the one who has the most strategic factors on his side," he wrote. "The one who figures on inability to prevail at headquarters before doing battle is the one who has the least strategic factors on his side. The one with many strategic factors in his favor wins, the one with few strategic factors in his favor loses - how much more so for one with no strategic factors in his favor. Observing the matter in this way, I can see who will win and who will lose."

Know your opponents and know yourself. That's opposition and defensive research in a nutshell.

See Part IV.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the philosophy! Someone recently said that a Party must simply tell the truth and stand for what's right. In my head, I said, but what about Phaedrus? But Sun Tzu also impels a subtlety that might be instructive to party people.

Still, I wish you hadn't used that anti-environmentalist example, which was not so subtle. Wouldn't it be more subtle to show how oppo work can help the progressive agenda even when conditions are unfavorable?-gm

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks. Opposition research isn't progressive or conservative. As a consultant, you take the position of your candidate, not your own. I could have used any example, but chose one that doesn't necessarily jibe with my own philosophy precisely because the tactics are pretty much value neutral. Keeps everybody on their toes!