Saturday, July 09, 2005

Sun Tzu and Opposition Research Strategy: Part V

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

Sun Tzu elaborated specific flaws in generals that could be exploited by their opposition. Each also applies to running modern electoral political campaigns:

There are five traits that are dangerous in generals: Those who are ready to die can be killed; those who are intent on living can be captured; those who are quick to anger can be shamed; those who are puritanical can be disgraced; those who love people can be troubled. These five things are faults in generals, disasters for military operations.
Those who are willing to die are mostly those who enter politics or run for office for selfless reasons -- to promote a particular good-government-type cause or public policy. Often they are zealous single-issue candidates or political operatives. Many of these folks, especially on the left, reflexively appear to seek electoral martyrdom. The most successful politicians, sad to say -- the ones willing to do what it takes to win and retain office -- typically operate out of personal ambition, not some do-gooder philosophy. By contrast, self-defined martyrs most often find their secret wishes for doom granted in the end, comforting themselves afterward that they "fought the good fight."

"Those who are intent on living" in campaigns prioritize their own autonomy and personal life choices over the goal of winning the election. In a heated race where campaigns have roughly equal resources, candidates and their staff must "sell out" their personal lives near-completely to gain strategic advantage. Politicians who won't spend evenings away from their families, for example, or who worry too much about avoiding campaign debt, may easily be outworked or outspent by their oppositon, all else being equal, leaving them ripe for "capture."

Obviously, those two flaws represent opposite sides of a coin. A wise commander hoping to avoid pitfalls must balance the two extremes: One must be prepared to die -- nobody should enter a campaign without understanding there's a good chance they'll lose -- but utterly unwilling to contemplate defeat until after election night.

Using your opponent's anger against them is a key, often overlooked tool enabled by high-quality opposition research. For starters, it's usually free or cheap compared to other strategies. Politicians all have huge egos - after all, by definition they think they should be running things or they would not present themselves for public office. It's easy to play on that ego, which carries with it a raft of insecurities that can be manipulated in a highly charged campaign atmosphere.

Angry people do irrational things. For that one unhappy moment, or sometimes for many, injuring one's attackers will be valued more highly than taking actions that benefit oneself. It's that brief lack of focus that gives your campaign an opening to manipulate. In the final few weeks of an election, literally every day becomes extremely important. Causing a candidate or their staff to lose focus in a close race even briefly during that critical period can mightily disrupt a year-long campaign effort. Even better, attacks sometimes cause angry people to respond disproportionately, waste valuable resources, and often draw more attention to allegations through their response than the original attack received.

Campaigns can make their opponent pretty darn angry for not a lot of money. One frequently successful tactic is to send out a piece of attack mail, or to have blockwalkers take flyers or door hangers with attack messages door to door, delivering negative messages narrowly targeted geographically to the candidate's own house and neighborhood, preferably also that of the campaign manager or chief local strategist. To really stir the pot, use volunteers to call voters in your opponent's home precinct, plus the neighborhoods of his or her key advisers. Have callers give a negative message about your opponent, then ask for whom they intend to vote (this is called "voter ID") and offer them a yard sign.

Often, for the cost of a couple hundred pieces of photocopied literature and a few volunteers' time, campaigns can convey the impression to insiders in your opponent's camp that attacks are being widely distributed, if only because the candidate's neighbor asked her about it from across the hedge. Throw in a few bon mots at public forums in earshot of the opposition, and I've seen perfectly rational, professional politicians who should know better sent entirely around the bend mistaking the cacophony we'd created for some barbarian horde pounding at their campaign's gates. Frequently the opposing campaign will spend real resources on their own mail or door hanging piece responding to the charges you've made, or even respond on television which quickly soaks up excess resources, all the while prolonging the debate and public attention on the negative message.

A corollary tactic to making your opponent angry: tire them with swiftness and surprise attacks. You don't want to make the opposing campaign angry then have them wise up and adopt smarter tactics. Keep your opponent disoriented and unfocused, reeling from attack after attack, but always responding to last week's message, even as this week's message guts them like a fish. Every campaign wants to set the terms of debate in its own election - to have its messages define themselves, their opponent, and how voters view the critical issues. Thus, whenever you can cause the opposition to respond to your attacks, they will have less time, money and resources to spend putting out their own message and defining issues to their benefit. Thus, a strategy utilizing many different attacks, targeting numerous different issues, constituencies, and geographical areas can have the effect of forcing your opponent to constantly react to your campaign instead of focusing on their own priorities.

Other times, that strategy wouldn't work - say, if your campaign doesn't have the money to spend behind multiple negative messages, or when little is known about a challenger with no public record, so there aren't many attacks available. For Sun Tzu as for 21st century campaigners, attack tactics are unique to a given situation, as evaluated in the strategic assessments.

Examples of politicians combating arrogance with humility abound - one need look no further than our then-Texas Governor George W. Bush in the fall 2000 presidential debates promising that if elected American foreign policy would be "humbler." In retrospect, the nation and the world have learned what Texans already knew - that Karl Rove and Mark McKinnon's ability to make George Bush appear humbler than anybody, even Al Gore, ranked as one of the greatest-ever feats of public relations, a tribute to the skill of these modern manipulators of message and their understanding of the ever-changing-yet-somehow-still-the-same communications media. That accomplishment alone should once and for all catapult those Texas consultants into the historic stratosphere of US campaign image makers.

Finally, today as millenia ago, "those who love people may be troubled." This may not sound like a character flaw to the average person, but for political leaders it represents a vulnerability that may be exploited. How many candidates have you heard bow out of a nasty race to avoid putting their family through the unhappy event? How many legion more never enter politics for the same reason? More often than not, selfish people make the most successful politicians because they're willing to elevate their ambition over their own happiness and the welfare of those around them. For others who aren't sufficiently self-centered, though, or, to put a kinder face on it, for those who are not extremely goal-focused, once an opponent turns up the heat they'll frequently retreat from the kitchen.

See Part VI.

No comments: