Saturday, July 09, 2005

Sun Tzu and Opposition Research Strategy: Part VI

This is the final installment in a special Grits series on Sun Tzu and Opposition Research Strategy. See also parts I, II, III, IV, and V.

Sun Tzu's belief that victory could be "discerned," not manufactured, further reveals itself in what he called the five stages of securing military victory: measurement, assessment, calculation, comparison, and victory. Master Sun, like modern political consultants, understood that the outcome of a conflict can usually be predicted beforehand, much to the chagrin of the media who treat both events with the same nuance as their Kentucky Derby or Super Bowl coverage.

Campaign strategies, like military strategies, mobilize large numbers of people, communicate with constituents, confront or bypass specific, mostly logistical or political barriers, and play on or off specific strengths or weaknesses of both one's own campaign and one's opponents. Master Sun understood that victory and defeat were the result of a variety of factors, some of which are under a general's control, but most of which are not. The factors that will influence victory and defeat, though, are knowable - much more knowable, in this writer's experience, than, say, whether weapons of mass destruction exist in Iraq.

Don't think the outcome of war is predictable? Consider President George W. Bush's ill-fated decision to disband the Iraqi army after the Iraq war. Now, read the first entry by Sun Tzu in the chapter entitled "Planning a Siege" (chapters, of course, were artificially created by the translator):
The general rule for use of the military is that it is better to keep a nation intact than to destroy it. It is better to keep an army intact than to destroy it, better to keep a division intact than to destroy it, better to keep a battalion intact than to destroy it, better to keep a unit intact than destroy it.
Had someone at the Penatgon read and followed that advice before the United States' present adventure in Iraq, the Iraqi insurgency might never have launched the horrifying wave of violence that engulfs that country at the time of this writing. The outcome of the decision to disband the army was predictable - indeed, Sun Tzu predicted it and warned against it millennia ago. As mentioned earlier, though, it requires very little effort to read and understand Sun Tzu, but an immense amount of self-discipline to implement his approach.

Similarly, the outcome of most campaigns can be discerned with relative accuracy, leaving little drama in all but a handful of so-called "horse races." Thanks to the long-term maintenance of "voter files," or databases of voter contact information, plus the advent of political polling, today's voting patterns are more easily measured than conflicts in the murky world of international relations, or even than elections in Nixon's time. With declining percentages of the public voting, professional political strategists can pretty much predict who will vote in a given election, who will populate the electorate if voter turnout is high, and who are the die-hards who will vote no matter how bad is the turnout. Campaigns know whether these people historically voted Democratic or Republican, how their precinct voted in local elections that might indicate their political leanings, their age, race and gender, and many other bits of data which, combined with polling information and sophisticated targeting methods, allow campaigns to hone narrowly in on the voters they need to win.

Polling identifies core base voters, voters who may swing toward or against one's candidate, and voters in the enemy camp. These will be subdivided by geography, age, race, gender, education level, income level, voting history, or myriad other subgroups. A good poll tests responses to numerous issues that are likely to come up in a campaign, again with results broken out with detail on opinion trends among subgroups. Opposition messages might be tested to discover which issues enthused the base, dampened enemy votes, or, the holy grail of messages, moved undecided voters.

Campaigns use polling to test prospective attacks on their opponent, along with attacks the campaign anticipates being launched against it. In other words, opposition and defensive research should occur before the campaign pays for opinion polling. A good poll will tell within reasonable certainty which attacks will damage your campaign, as well as which attacks will work best on your opponent. It will even give clues to what communications strategy - broadcast advertising, direct mail, internet campaigning, etc. - will be most effective. Ideally, one delivers attacks to the narrowest group of targeted voters possible to achieve the campaign's vote goals, while avoiding voters who are likely to backlash against the message.

Use of polling by campaigns receives perennial, unjustified criticism, tantamount to criticizing a carpenter for using a jigsaw. Polling allows a high level of sophistication in crafting and delivering messages. Campaigns operating without such a measuring tool at their disposal risk the same fate as a pilot flying into the rain without checking the weather report.

Combine oppo, defensive, and polling information with answers to a few more questions - Who has more money? Who has grassroots support? Who has more staff and superior campaign organizational structure? Whose strategists have a superior record? - and the election's outcome can be predicted with a high degree of certainty. Ron Facheaux, the founder of Campaigns and Elections magazine, boasts that his service predicts outcomes of elections nationwide with nearly 99% accuracy.

Once data is gathered, the steps for planning a campaign are identical to those proscribed for Sun Tzu's generals: measurement, assessment, calculation, comparison, and victory. How they do that would take up an book. For present purposes, the reader need only know that opposition, defensive, and polling research all measure and assess Sun Tzu's main benchmarks: leadership, organization, the terrain or terms of debate, and the political "weather." Campaign planners assess and calculate the efficacy of various tactical options, including which attacks are most likely to succeed, or how best to defend against an expected onslaught. When planners make their measurements, assessments, calculations and comparisons correctly, they can predict the outcome with quite a bit of certainty.

One word of caution: Sun Tzu was an ancient philosopher-warrior writing in a differing culture and time. I've advocated that some of his ideas be considered metaphors for aspects of modern political conflicts in the democratic electoral arena. Certainly because it was written for a different time, and for a different purpose, not every line should be read as some biblical Truth. Technology, especially mass communications, has created issues, problems and opportunities Sun Tzu never dreamed of, though in my opinion his approach would be well suited to modern politics. What's more,I've only scratched the surface of Master Sun's approach, and indeed these comments have ignored the words of China's great commentaries by other ancient generals, which enlighten his meaning considerably. Like this chapter, Sun Tzu should be a starting point for thinking about strategy, not a definitive source of answers.

Yet The Art of War is a remarkable book, particularly if presented with the best of the ancient commentaries (as does Thomas Cleary's translation, which this writer would strongly recommend above others available). How often does ancient wisdom so ably confirm modern experience? Master Sun's deep insight into the burdens and duties of leadership allowed him to maintain dispassion and focus on his nation's real priorities where lesser men merely reacted to events. Because war is merely politics in its most extreme form, Sun Tzu's model dramatically demonstrates how, even though human society and its structures of government have changed, the requirements for good leadership differ little in ancient and modern political affairs.

What was true for the ancient warrior is true for the 21st century opposition researcher: If you know others, and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a thousand battles.

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