Friday, July 08, 2005

Sun Tzu and Opposition Research Strategy: Part IV

This is a special Grits series on opposition research. See Parts I, II, and III.
Once campaigns perform a strategic assessment, they may begin analyzing which tactics will support their objectives. Again, Sun Tzu hit many of the high points:
  • Draw them in with the prospect of gain, then take them by confusion.
  • Use anger to throw them into disarray and to muddy their focus.
  • Use humility to make them haughty, then capitalize on their arrogance.
  • Tire them by flight using swiftness and surprise attacks.
  • Where alliances array against you, cause division among them.
  • Attack when they are unprepared.
Each of these tactics applies as much to a modern political campaign as to the ancient battlefield, because they have more to do with politics and human psychology than with engaging in physical fighting. The means and methods of war have changed enormously over the years, but politics and human nature pretty much stay the same wherever you look.

Some of these strategies assume a lack of able leadership or organizational discipline on the part of one's opponent. Often, that's the case. As will be discussed at length later, responding correctly to such attacks requires a commitment to message discipline and a focus on the campaign's real priorities - those that lead to victory - not the emotional reactions of the candidate or inexperienced staffers.

It's not that you never respond: "you can't win a fistfight without throwing punches," a consultant mentor of mine says frequently. But judging when and how to respond, Sun Tzu recognized, is a decision driven more through one's situational judgments, indeed one might say through one's artistic sensibilities, than any hard and fast rule. Through knowledge of "The Way," through maintaining a vision of the path to your desired outcome and applying keen judgment regarding which tactics advance or hinder that cause, a campaign strategist, like a general, makes judgments in the field that, at best, are no better than the least reliable piece of information they are based upon.

The idea of drawing an opponent with the prospect of gain, then attacking them while exposed, for example, works as well for the oppo researcher as for the ancient general. A good campaign researcher can identify, sometimes with the help of polling data, which issues are advantageous for their candidate that are damaging to their opponent. A classic example is a Republican candidate baiting a Democrat to run on left of center issues, anxious for the opportunity to label their opponent liberal, while Democrats similarly bait Republicans on issues like reproductive choice and race. The key is to convince one's opponent to stick out their neck on the issue, to draw them out on the subject so they can then be attacked for it.

It's easy to see why. The best attack will anticipate where an opponent's message is headed, then play off it, nullify it, while simultaneously transforming it into the equivalent of a floodlight on a theater stage, illuminating some particularly flattering element of your own candidate's character or record. Matching negative attacks to complement one's own primary, positive message represents the height of opposition artistry. I've heard the tactic called rhetorical judo - using your opponent's own message, their own momentum, against them like the judo wrestler flips an assailant. As in martial arts, a campaign's blows land harder when an opponent walks into them. Opposition researchers are counterpunchers. Momentum can shift with a single strike, and even weak campaigns with a good researcher retain a puncher's chance of winning until the end.

To get full benefit from such rhetorical judo, it's best to attack your opponent's core message. Doing so both undermines their strategic base and also requires fewer resources to promote your message. An attack based on some obscure, tangential vote no one's heard of, by comparison, can be expensive to put into play because a campaign must pay to educate the public about the issue, what your opponent did on it and why it's bad, and what your candidate would do differently. More cost-effective is to cajole or force an opponent to spend communications money on rhetorical or ideological terrain that benefits your own campaign. Then both camps play into your message themes, instead of just one. The other side faces only two options: it can keep the same message and continue to bleed, or change their primary communications strategy. That's a problem because, a) commercials are expensive to produce, even more so if they contain new messages, and b) campaigns spending money behind a message in any medium have committed significant resources behind a message that must now be abandoned. Since the public pays little attention to down ballot campaigns, one gets only a handful of opportunities to convey messages to the voters, and each time the message changes one risks the voters won't hear the new one.

Bottom line: Whenever a campaign has to pull media to change their message in response to attacks, it's a sign they're momentarily losing the message wars. For small districts, TV advertising may simply be cost-prohibitive analyzed on a cost-per-voter-contact basis, and many campaigns budget only for one TV ad at most. Though expenses for shooting and editing TV-quality video are declining, they're still beyond the means of most small campaigns, and for many the production and airing of a single commercial stretches available resources mightily. If campaigns must pay for multiple commercials responding to their opposition, then their opponents have imposed significant additional expenses that usually aren't anticipated in a campaign plan for any but the biggest races.

The strategy of causing the other side to change their message applies even to campaigns without TV. When I'm hired by a smaller campaign, if the other side has already produced their first campaign literature - perhaps they've sent out direct mail or started handing out "push cards" - I identify the main message components that my candidate would dispute, or which open the opponent up to a strategic attack. Frequently I'll propose an attack strategy designed to get the opposition to "change their push card," or to alter their campaign's core message in response to our initial attacks. At a minimum, this strategy causes your opposition to spend additional money re-creating literature each time you do it. That becomes expensive. Done correctly, it also shifts the message emphasis to issue areas you chose instead of them. In that way, opposition messages can define and alter the terms of debate in a given race.

Causing division among alliances - in other words, divide and conquer -- as a strategy needs little adumbration. But for the campaign researcher, if the campaign makes dividing alliances one of its goals, this choice of strategy obligates the researcher to find information not just about the opposing candidate but about the various ideologies, interests and personalities to which they're politically connected.

To create these divisions, a researcher looks for "wedge" attacks that split off one or more constituencies who would otherwise be disposed to support your opponent. Absent meaningful checks by the media, an opposing campaign can only respond in one of two ways: 1) spend campaign resources to defend themselves with a group they previously considered their base, in which case you've temporarily seized control of the terms of debate, or 2) stay on message and allow the bleeding to continue, in which case, if your attack is working, you'll be siphoning off votes. That causes double the damage because your opponent loses votes while the good guys (and don't we all think of ourselves as the good guys?) rack up new bases of support. Each negative attack must have not only documentation, but its own delivery vehicle. One can't rely on media coverage - they don't adequately cover any but the very highest-level elections - so quite frequently that means using some sort of paid media to communicate your message to the voters.

"Attack them when they are unprepared" relates closely to the advice, "take them by confusion." In both instances, for the campaign researcher, the strategy implies going negative early, before the race is typecast in the minds of the voters. Frequently campaigns are wise to attack certain opponents early on, when it might inhibit their fundraising or delay full mobilization by a critical few weeks. Often in a multi-candidate field, campaigns choose to attack the person who has the best credentials or an independent voter base that would be strong in a low-turnout election. Negative campaigning is frequently used early on in multi-candidate fields to knock out the candidate one would least prefer to run against.

Richard Nixon's 1972 presidential campaign offers perhaps the classic example of that strategy, and certainly the most egregious in American history. This tactic was, in fact, the essence of the Watergate scandal. The egregious fact wasn't that Nixon's oppo men broke into the Watergate doing oppo research on the Democratic National Committee and their candidate George McGovern. What made Watergate particularly creepy, and doubly criminal, is that Nixon had already successfully sabotaged Democratic candidate Edmund Muskie's campaign in the primary, literally reducing the man to tears, then trashed the other candidates until, in the end, the Nixon camp literally chose which Democrat he wanted to run against. Nixon preferred to face Mc Govern, whom he knew he could paint as a radical in the general election. And so it was.

Nixon's bag of dirty tricks today seems far out of bounds to the oppo researcher. Nixon's oppo men hired agents to infiltrate Democratic headquarters as spies. They stole and fabricated documents, dug through their target's garbage, and bugged phones without warrants, probable cause, or legal authority. They spread knowingly slanderous stories accusing Democratic candidates of adultery, homosexuality, drunkenness, and consorting with prostitutes. At their worst, Nixon operatives actually hired a woman to run outside of Muskie's hotel room naked shouting "I love Muskie!"

By contrast, today's oppo researchers are a geeky lot. Most of us have more in common with nerdy stock analysts who spend their days in front of a computer than some character from a Tom Clancy novel, which surely is how Nixon's men seem in comparison. Despite the stereotype of lying politicians - an image better-earned in the legislative process than on the campaign trail - outright false attacks today are a rarity and are usually the result of a mistake. I wouldn't dare put out negative attacks that aren't solidly backed up by evidence. In fact, it's certain any attacks will be scrutinized far more critically than any journalist's work product, if only by the opposing campaign. There can be no half-assed claims when you attack an opponent in public - your boss, the candidate, will be called to account for any errors. Every criticism must be impeccably documented, or the attack is too weak to spend money behind.

Still, even if tactics have moderated as the field of opposition research has professionalized, the strategic principles behind which candidate to attack are the same.

See Part V.

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