Friday, January 25, 2008

Somebody Needs an OED (JM)

Strategy? What strategy? Rudy Giuliani's plan in Florida
By Daniel Finklestein

Why, if it isn’t our old friend, Lord Finkleton the Second, pontificator on politics from across the pond. The last time we visited with him, he told us why it would be a good idea if Obama were to select Al Gore as his VP. Let’s see what our good buddy at the London Times has in store for us this week:

Has Rudy Giuliani's primary strategy been mad? That's what the conventional wisdom says. What sort of idiot waits out the early primaries, losing momentum every day, and only joins in after surrendering the crown of frontrunner? Well here's some alternative wisdom. One that I find pretty convincing. Giuliani's strategy wasn't mad, because he didn't have a strategy.

Whoa, maybe we should hold of boarding the wisdom train until we hear your idea… no strategy you say… hmm, fascinating. I hope you have some empirical evidence to back this up. In fact, strategy is a myth. Yes, most good political campaigns prioritize nothing and largely decide where to do media buys and make public appearances based upon monkeys throwing darts against a map. In fact, in a totally bizarre move Mitt Romney decided to give a stump speech in Eritrea yesterday. When asked why he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, I was read Daniel Finklestein’s great column in London Times yesterday and he pretty much convinced me that strategy is a myth, so you know I am bringing change and Mittmentum to Eritria.” This is silly.

On the Weekly Standard's campaign blog, Richelieu argues:

I honestly think that if you what you write is only twice the amount of what you’re quoting you are a bad journalist. Unless your express goal is to mock bad journalism, in which case carry on.

Every major candidate has exactly the same strategy, which is to say no real strategy at all. Each has tried to win every big primary, and failing that, scrambled like mad in a live or die semi-panic to win the next one.

This is one of the least true things ever ever written. I know the you, Lord Finkleton, did not write it, but you quoted it as if it were somehow correct or useful, in which case you shall bare the brunt of my anger. First of all, many candidates have different strategies, putting far different amounts of money and face time in to particular states. For instance, Mike Huckabee spent pretty much his whole campaign warchest on winning Iowa, because Iowan demographics, the caucus system and the fact that Iowa is right near Arkansas all played very will in to his particular candidacy. Hillary Clinton, though competing in South Carolina, is not competing much because of the demographic disadvantages she has there, in fact she herself has left the state to move on to the major Super Tuesday states. Campaigns deal in resources allocation and strategically decide where to place said resources. That above sentence is gibberish.

Thus Giuliani tried hard in New Hampshire in the early days - spending millions and spending hours. He was an early spender in Iowa and he tried to get going in Michigan too. All to little avail. So he turned necessity - he wasn't going to make it - into strategy - I am not running in the early states.

Alright, this is going to be difficult to explain so let’s all pay attention. Strategy requires information. It is based on polling and demographics and initial responses, all of the things allow one to form a strategy. If your point is that candidates would like to win all of the states, but then find out this might not be possible then this is a stupid article. If you think changing your game plan as you get more information is not somehow not strategy then you are just straight insane. Daniel Finklestein probably plays chess in the following matter:

Lord Finkleton: Knight to King’s 3.

Confused Cockney Bootblack: But, Gov’nor if’n you do that, I’ll checkmate you in the next move.

Lord Finkleton: I have a strategy. Just because you did something different doesn’t mean I should change my plans? That wouldn’t be very strategic would it?!

Confused Cockney Bootblack: Umm, why are you trying to move thin air gov,nor?

Lord Finkleton: I had strategically planned on having a pawn there, so pawn it is.

And this is probably why it took the Brits so very long to get off the Indian subcontinent.

Times polling guru Andrew Cooper notes that the polls (starting strong in early states for Rudy then fading before he pulled out) bear this theory out. And that it is true for John McCain too, but in reverse. The polls have nothing to do with strategy, everybody knew Hizzoner’s name because of 9-11. But the campaign, knowing that once voters in certain states got to know America’s mayor they might find him less palatable, moved on to the bigger states. In fact, they spent their time successfully lobbying states like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to move to a winner take all delegate platform. This was all part of the February 5th strategy that the Giuliani camp went with based on the information they had. McCain had written off Iowa and dissed the caucuses to such an extent that he began to slag off ethanol subsidies (just as Arnie Vinnick did). Then he realised he might win and came rushing back to the state.

I really think you are confusing the term “strategy” with some other term, say “robotic programming”. Also don’t you go referencing the West Wing just to get on my good side. By the way, this is almost Dowdesque in its “pop-culture non-sequitorishness” but I will forgive it simply because it is a Sorkin reference.

One further piece of evidence in support of Richelieu's theory is provided by the New York Times. They note that Rudy's top aides are forgoing their salaries in Florida because his resources are dwindling. But if his strategy had truly been to preserve himself for this stage of the fight then surely the last thing that would be happening is him running out of money.

Okay, maybe you are confusing NO strategy with REALLY REALLY BAD strategy. Rudy’s campaign was a colossally mismanaged behemoth that wasted resources and really thought it could defy conventional wisdom, yet couldn’t. I honestly think the truth is that Rudy was never electable in any way no matter how good his strategy was. He was never actually going to play well in the South or midwest, which the GOP obviously needs to win the general, and he has far too many skeletons in that old closet of his. I am very glad this happened, it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person, but this doesn’t make your point about no strategy a good one.

So the truth about Rudy is not that he has a bad strategy (in terms of fighting states late) but that he has the wrong campaign (his messages and candidacy aren't appealing).

Why can’t both of these things be true. In fact, they totally are. Rudy’s strategy of waiting until the late states was a bad strategy. He saw it as the most appealing option because he was unlikely to be successful in any of the early states because he a terrible candidate.

And there is one further point. We read a lot about strategies in politics. Much of it is simply spin to cover decisions into which candidates have been pushed.

This is a genuinely interesting topic. I agree, sometimes “strategies” are really just ways of playing the “expectations game”, but that doesn’t mean that there is no strategy at all. In fact, spinning one’s strategy is, in and of itself strategic. I am just confused at this point. Welcome back Lord Finkleton.

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