No matter how much you dislike Donald Trump and his effect on the Republican presidential primary race—and there are many, many good reasons to do so—you have to spare a little grudging admiration for the sheer madcap genius of Trump’s ability to disrupt, unsettle, and exploit the primary system.
We can better understand what Trump has done successfully, as well as his ultimate limitations as a candidate and why he would be such a terrible president, using the ideas of military strategic theorist John Boyd. Trump has been, thus far, the true Boyd candidate in this race, yet he is already exhibiting symptoms of precisely the flaws that Boyd saw as fatal in combatants.
Observe, Orient, Decide, Act
Boyd, an Air Force fighter pilot, Vietnam and Korea veteran, and fighter design engineer, is best known for the “OODA Loop” or “decision cycle,” a concept he developed as part of a broader study of “patterns of conflict” in the 1970s and 1980s later widely adopted in the military, especially the U.S. Marine Corps. OODA stands for Observe-Orient-Decide-Act, and refers to the process by which soldiers in combat—or humans engaged in any form of conflict—absorb information, make decisions, and act on them. Boyd illustrated this with a graph:
Boyd’s theories were complex, constantly evolving, and never formally written down in one place in his lifetime—he preferred to play Socrates, and let others be Plato—so they are often oversimplified. But for present purposes, four generalizations will do.
First, operational tempo—speed—lies at the core of Boyd’s theory of conflict, and has been the most influential element of his thinking, both in the military and in how the concept of a “decision cycle” has seeped into our popular vocabulary. (Indeed, Boyd first made his name in the Air Force as “40-Second Boyd,” a fighter jock with a standing bet that he could get on any opponent’s tail in 40 seconds. Many took the bet; he never had to pay up.)
Boyd’s core insight was about the interactive and disruptive nature of speed on human decision-making: success in conflict can be rapid and dramatic if one can “operate inside the OODA Loop” of the opponent. Operating inside the opponent’s OODA Loop means presenting him with a constantly shifting battlefield that keeps him off-balance and disoriented so he is unable to process information and make and implement sound decisions before the situation changes again.
Put another way, you don’t just make better or faster decisions than your opponent, you can disrupt the opponent’s ability to make reality-based decisions if you can continuously change the reality before he has time to react to it.
If action flows nearly instantaneously from orientation, the quickness of the overall loop is accelerated. This relative acceleration will shorten, or seemingly compress the time an adversary has to reorient in response to what is happening in his environment. Boyd contended that in competitive situation, be it combat, sports or debate, the opponent with the relatively quicker loop will, at times, have a more relevant picture of the unfolding situation because he or she is shaping it rather than being forced to adapt to it. This mismatch in orientation can provide a fleeting opportunity for the quicker side to continue to act to exploit the effects of the first move, before the slower side understands what is happening. If the quicker side can maintain this mismatch, the slower side will become increasingly disconnected from the environment and their actions will become increasingly unrelated to the actual situation. They will be driven solely by perception. As this process continues, the relatively slower side continues to generate increasingly irrelevant observations, leading to more disconnected decisions, and so forth. The relatively slower side’s loop will fold back in on itself as confusion and disorder increase; generating an internally focused close loop.
Boyd referred to the concept of using your own actions to dictate what the enemy knows, and therefore does, as “implicit guidance.”
But Boyd did not stress speed for the sake of speed, in the form of simply acting faster than the opponent. Indeed, a successful Boydian approach will sometimes lead to the opponent increasing his tempo in a panic, thus leading to further breakdowns in his ability to make sound decisions on adequate information and implement them cohesively.
To use a football analogy, the point is to have a quarterback who can quickly read the field, be prepared to make a quick release upon spotting the best opportunity, and force the defense into a reactive mode due to the QB’s ability to quickly reshape the field—not a quarterback who heaves the ball downfield the instant he touches it without setting his feet and spotting an open man.
The Strategic Value of Ambiguity
Second, a crucial concept in Boyd’s work is ambiguity. An opponent who wishes to counter your approach will want to ascertain your intentions, capabilities, and movements, and respond accordingly. It becomes much more difficult to do this if you are able to keep your intentions and actions unclear to the opponent for as long as possible.
Indeed, the ideal Boydian approach is to keep the opponent so confused he isn’t really sure who he’s fighting, where the battlefield begins or ends, or even if he’s in a fight at all! This is not a novel concept—it’s as old as Sun Tzu—but when combined with speed, ambiguity plays a crucial role in the OODA Loop in keeping the opponent from becoming oriented as a result of his observations.
One of the most devious and successful practitioners of ambiguity today is Vladimir Putin. From Ukraine to Georgia to Syria to the Baltics, Putin has shown again and again the ability to expand his influence while using secrecy, disinformation, and incrementalism to keep his potential opponents from becoming sufficiently oriented to make a decision and translate it into action.
While the West’s foreign policy apparatus continues to debate what exactly Putin wants, what he is doing, whether he is doing himself more harm than good, and even whether he is in some ways on our side, Putin is constantly reshaping the reality on the ground in ways that conform to his own ideas about his objectives.
Getting Enemies Into Their Unconscious Reflexes
Third, Boyd stressed that much of the OODA process occurs beyond conscious thought, and draws on things like reflex, training, memory, cultural background, and personal experience. This is most obvious in Boyd’s concept of orientation as a process that filters observations and tends to fit them into pre-existing “mental models” or frameworks of narrative and pattern recognition (in militaries, this tends to include a particular military’s doctrine).
The result is that each combatant will orient around the same observations differently based on his own experience, heritage, and cluster of preconceptions. It also stands out in the realm of action, especially action in physical forms of conflict like combat and sports. Because of the need for split-second decisions at the ground level, armies fight as they train, teams play as they practice.
For our purposes, the same thing can be true of political candidates on the trail. They are confronted with so many situations calling for them to address some new event, public policy argument, or cultural divide (in debates, interviews, town halls, fundraisers, and retail rope lines) that they could never possibly hope to respond to them all with thoughtful and considered original answers.
So they fall back on memorized texts (stump speeches, talking points, favorite anecdotes and jokes), their ideological instincts and party platforms, and things that have worked for them in the past. When cornered, they may retreat to their happy place—war record, humble origins story, defeat of a despised foe, talent for baiting hecklers or the media, agitation of economic or racial resentments, whatever has gotten them out of jams in the past.
When Participants Don’t Evolve to Fit Reality
Fourth, all of Boyd’s theories center around dynamic systems, i.e., systems in which all the elements affect all the others continuously, and change is constant. The OODA Loop itself is a dynamic rather than linear process, as the many circle-back lines on Boyd’s chart illustrate.
For example, the combatant may affect the situation merely by observing it, and decision is merely a hypothesis that will be tested and refined based on how additional observations are collected and how the decision-maker becomes oriented around them. The ability of each combatant to affect the other’s OODA Loop is, of course, key to the idea of getting inside the other’s Loop and using implicit guidance to collapse his ability to make sound or reality-based decisions.
More broadly, Boyd stressed the difference between open and closed systems of conflict and the need for open systems of O-O-D-A to deal with the former (which are the norm in human conflict).
Consider a simple video game like Pac-Man: the game operates according to programmed rules and will function in a predictable way, so the more times you play, the more you learn to process the feedback the game gives you and turn it into actions that improve your chances of winning. The game is a closed system, and a veteran player can beat it with a closed system of observing, orienting, deciding, and acting, fitting each new observation into a set of preconceptions about how the game’s rules and winning strategies operate.
But most forms of human conflict are open systems—the rules and conditions are not only constantly changing, but also reacting continuously to how you approach them. The opponent may be trying to get inside your OODA Loop; the terrain on which the conflict rages may be expanding or contracting; the available tools and technologies and cultural presuppositions may be evolving; new combatants may be entering or leaving the fray. Because the conditions are an open system, the OODA process must also be open and evolving, rather than falling back on the kind of fixed expectations that come rationally with repeating conflict in a closed system like playing Pac-Man:
Incestuous amplification occurs when one’s preconceptions misshape the observations that one is sensing. These misshapen observations then blur the true connection between the individual and the environment because the brain begins to synthesize cues and preconceived responses. Viewed abstractly, incestuous amplification hijacks the orientation of an individual’s OODA loop by overriding actual observations to a point where the subsequent orientation induces the individual to perceive and act on what he or she wants to see rather than what actually is. First order effects of this disconnect may be initially too small to measure thanks in part to luck, chance, or ambiguity. However, if the cycle continues unabated, subsequent actions continue to induce dysfunctional behavior back into the entire OODA loop, which then folds back on itself to magnify the mismatch…the effect…is a little like placing a microphone next a speaker when recording, only much more dangerous….This kind of positive feedback loop essentially forms a closed system. Left uncorrected, the individual exhibiting an incestuously amplifying OODA loop becomes increasingly disconnected from his or her environment…Incestuous amplification has the effect of closing off the system from its environment…without a correction or change that opens the decider’s OODA loop to an effective communication with the real world, the only uncertainty in the outcome is how long an OODA loop driven mad by incestuous amplification can last before it degenerates into chaos, confusion, and disorder.
Chaos, confusion and disorder sounds like a lot of what we have seen thus far in the Republican primaries.
June 2015: Enter Trump
So, what does this all have to do with Donald Trump? Quite a lot. Few candidates in recent political memory have been so effective at altering the reality around them in a way that crashes their opponents’ OODA Loops.
Ambiguity: Freezing The Opposition
Let’s start with ambiguity. Trump has been flirting with electoral politics so long, he was asked in an interview with Rona Barrett in 1980 about his possible interest in running for president someday, and Larry King asked him at the 1988 GOP convention if he would have accepted an invitation to be George H.W. Bush’s running mate. He joined H. Ross Perot’s “Reform Party” in 1999 and even ran briefly in its primaries for the 2000 election before bowing out and watching the nomination go to Pat Buchanan.
Trump zigged—he declared that he identified as a Democrat as recently as 2004, donated significant sums of money to Hillary Clinton and other Democrats despised by rank-and-file Republicans, and had glowing words for Hillary and President Obama. He zagged—he confronted Obama so directly over his birthplace in 2011 that Obama felt compelled to finally publicly release his Hawaiian birth certificate, and he endorsed Mitt Romney in the 2012 primaries, saying that if Romney were the nominee, Trump would not stage his own third-party bid in 2012.
Given his long and erratic history, loose party loyalty, and propensity to bluff, Trump’s competitors for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination were quite reasonably conditioned to view talk of a Trump 2016 campaign, and even his June 16 announcement, with uncertainty: was it another publicity stunt? A run-up to a Perot-style third party campaign? A stalking horse for some hidden agenda? A personal vendetta against Jeb Bush? Or a real effort to win the Republican nomination?
Unable to discern Trump’s intentions in May, June, and July, his opponents were tentative in reaching decisions and putting them into action. To the extent that he maintains the third-party threat to this day, it provides him a screen of ambiguity that protects him against attacks other candidates would have to face. Nobody worries that Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush will leave the party in a snit and launch a third-party bid; Trump’s credible threat of doing so makes primary opponents think twice about attacking him in ways they would not hesitate to attack loyal Republicans whose intent to abide by primary outcomes is clear.
Subconscious Orientation: The Giant Sucking Sound
As Boyd would predict, personal history formed the mental models that figured into the candidates’ assessments of the third-party threat. For Jeb Bush, 1992 had to loom large: a populist billionaire fond of ranting against trade with Mexico barges into the race as a third-party candidate, splitting off the Buchananist chunk of the GOP base and handing a national election from the Bush family to the Clinton family.
So, from the outset, Jeb was conditioned to fear a Trump third-party run as a larger threat than a Trump run as a Republican. In the early going, therefore, Jeb’s natural orientation was to back away from conflict that might further antagonize Trump.
Three GOP contenders—Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, and Chris Christie—had a different history. All three had faced down third-party challenges and won: Christie knocked off a sitting Democratic governor despite a third-party challenge from the Right (who was suspected of being a stalking horse for the Democrats), Rubio beat a sitting Republican governor for a Senate seat in the primary and beat him again when he ran third-party; and Perry won his second re-election in a wild four-way affair with two independents, one of them celebrity author Kinky Friedman. Perry had also survived a moderate primary challenge in 2010, but in 2012 he lost to the establishment favorite, Mitt Romney, in part because Perry was blindsided by attacks from his right (mainly by Michele Bachmann) on immigration.
It was therefore Perry—predictably, in hindsight—who disregarded Trump’s shield of ambiguity, seeing him as a threat to be neutralized no matter what he was up to, and moved first against Trump in August. Perry challenged Trump directly on immigration and hoped to use the confrontation to shore up his own credentials on the issue. The Texas gunslinger would find himself walking into a fatal trap.
Dynamic Systems: Toto, It’s Not 2012 Anymore
Perry, himself a former Air Force transport pilot, correctly assessed his adversary’s intentions, but not the way the terrain had shifted from 2012 and how his opponent was reshaping it to his advantage.
The central dynamic of 2012 was a fairly conventional one for a Republican primary: a lavishly funded establishment front-runner trying to keep conservative and anti-establishment sentiment divided among an assortment of insurgents (and one more-moderate-than-thou gadfly) rather than unified behind a credible head-to-head opponent.
A key weapon in 2012 was Romney’s SuperPAC, which delivered barrages of negative advertising concentrated against whichever rival threatened him most at any one time. Insurgents like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum also used SuperPACs to funnel a single wealthy supporter’s donations into enough TV oxygen to stay on the air despite a narrow donor base.
But the 2016 terrain is different in a number of significant ways. Four involve the structural dynamics of the field.
First, with 17 candidates who could be described as at least vaguely serious—including eight multi-term governors and five multi-term or sitting senators—and no initially dominant frontrunner, the field was inevitably going to involve a Hobbesian scramble for resources, attention, and support.
Second, the importance of SuperPACs in 2012 concealed their limitations: they can be used for offensive or defensive TV advertising, but not to keep a candidate’s own staff and organization in the field.
Third, the debate system had been overhauled to limit the number of debates (making them bigger media events) and put poll-driven strictures on who could be on the main stage, which interacted with the size of the field to mean that many real candidates would not even make it to the main debate, and that low early poll standing could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, thus accelerating the tempo needed to survive.
Fourth, the primary season has been compressed—voting starts a month later but ends at the same time, while the convention is a month earlier—so there will be comparatively little time to raise money and build infrastructure after Iowa and New Hampshire, putting a premium on early hiring and spending, which in turn means high “burn rates” for candidates organizing along traditional lines.
Free Media For the Win
Trump seems to have shrewdly assessed both the terrain and his own capabilities and realized that the crowded nature of the field meant that the most valuable of all resources in this context was the one he was most accustomed to commanding: free media. Trump accumulated a massive advantage in press coverage over the summer, especially on cable news, with networks often covering his speeches in their entirety.
One emblematic late August analysis found CNN giving Trump 78 percent of its GOP campaign coverage. He’s still at it: an analysis of news in the days following his proposal earlier this month to ban Muslim immigration found Trump getting 25 times as many media mentions as the other 13 Republican candidates combined.
Political scientists have noted the correlation between media coverage and polling, especially early in a primary campaign, and this was bound to have an even larger impact when such a large field meant voters knew comparatively little about the various contenders. Trump, of course, has (like Romney) the deterrent effect of a potentially large self-funded war chest at the ready, but he has never needed to spend it. He’s spent only $217,000 on campaign ads, compared to $28.9 million by Jeb and between $2 million and $11 million by each of Rubio, Christie, John Kasich, and Ben Carson. No candidate in recent memory has exploited such an opportunity, and Trump’s ability to do so has altered the battlefield.
Taken in combination, these factors conspired—upon Trump’s dive into the deep end of the pool and initial poll surge—to put immediate stress on all the other campaigns’ ability to balance their need for long-term organizational spending with their fundraising capabilities (which can be limited when a candidate is polling in single digits in a crowded field) and their need to pay for the kind of publicity Trump could command for free.
Perry and Scott Walker were the first victims of this. Unlike leanly staffed campaigns designed for a candidate who is running to build name recognition or send a message, Perry and especially Walker were running to win, and had spent accordingly.
But the early polls kept Perry off the main debate stage, hampering his fundraising. The long game he played successfully in Texas in 2006 and 2010 wouldn’t work. He needed a successful confrontation with Trump. While his move to denounce Trump’s ham-fisted immigration rhetoric was brave and principled, it meant going up against Trump when he was at the peak of his media saturation.
2016 Is Vastly Different From 2012
It wasn’t just timing, however. Four other factors had changed on Perry, and Trump exploited all of them. Three were in the mood of the voters themselves.
One, the manner of Romney’s loss and the paucity of policy accomplishments from the congressional GOP exacerbated anti-establishment sentiment in the GOP primary electorate, spreading to a general distrust of the whole system and everyone in it.
Two, President Obama’s unilateral executive actions on immigration, and the sensational killing of Kate Steinle by an illegal immigrant on July 1, dialed up the intensity of the immigration issue, which had never been a decisive factor in GOP primaries before 2012.
Three, as best symbolized by the shockingly rapid progress since 2012 of the same-sex marriage political movement, the standards of public mores and public discourse have been changing in ways and at a pace that is disorienting to a lot of older, more traditional voters (even voters who may not themselves be especially religious or socially conservative).
As a result, a chunk of the electorate (at least, people polled as being GOP voters) was not in a mood for the kind of grown-up leadership that traditional Republican nominees like Romney, McCain, Dole, the Bushes, and Reagan embodied. Instead, they responded positively when Trump was deliberately outrageous, repeatedly saying things that weren’t “politically correct.”
So when asked to choose between Trump (who had catered to this type of audience with a similar style in his years of association with pro wrestling and who now barged onto the scene calling Mexicans rapists) and Perry (who had won six statewide elections in Texas by carefully balancing toughness on the border with a welcoming approach to Texas Hispanics), many were willing to choose confrontational rhetoric over experience.
Of course, that Buchananite strain has always existed in the party, and insurgencies like Bachmann’s had failed in the recent past. But for Perry, the financial and structural realities of the new battlefield meant that he was squeezed out before the fight could go on for long.
The Media Is As Desperate as Base Voters
The fourth factor was the media itself, and its susceptibility to being bribed or bullied—not with cash, but with the currency of Trump’s talent for spectacle. Cable TV news networks are facing a downward trend in ratings. They’re not the only ones under stress—talk radio has also been facing declining ratings and advertising rates, in part due to assaults from left-wing social-media campaigns against its advertisers.
Enter Trump, whose theatrical antics are ratings gold and who is not shy about throwing around the clout that gives him. He has repeatedly used the high ratings generated by his appearances to jawbone the cable news networks over debate formats, including the unprecedented step of negotiating the CNBC debate down to two hours, and it seems unlikely he’d be above using similar tactics against talk radio hosts.
In years past, right-leaning talk radio had treated favorably many of the people running, and many of the leading conservative talkers were people with movement conservative backgrounds who understood well the principles Trump treats as fungible. Yet, right-wing talk radio has—with a few honorable exceptions—rallied around Trump, basking in the audience-driving controversy he brings with him. When the circus comes to town, everyone wants to be a clown.
Trump’s ability to spot the media’s pressure points and leverage them to his advantage gave him a decisive edge over Perry and other opponents in the summer. But a different aspect of Trump’s modus operandi would help him scuttle his next target—the no. 2 candidate in the race—and humble the presumptive frontrunner: the tempo of his assaults on their OODA Loops.
Tempo: Culling the Slow From the Front of the Herd
After Perry, the second candidate to drop would be Walker, one of the early favorites for the nomination. For the first half of 2015, Jeb and Walker sat first and second in the national polls, with Walker leading in Iowa and Jeb in New Hampshire.
By Labor Day, Jeb was in single digits nationally and in the first two states, and Walker was out of money, dropping out of the race shortly thereafter. Trump was not the only reason both campaigns crashed and burned in six weeks, but he was the proximate cause that sent both spiraling to the ground, brutally exposing the latent weaknesses in their OODA Loops.
A major reason Trump was able to outflank Walker and Jeb was speed. His operational tempo left them disoriented and constantly unable to craft workable responses that kept up with how quickly Trump was reshaping reality around them.
Traditional political campaigns, no matter how savvy and quick-witted the candidate may be, rely on layers of political consultants, policy advisers, and pollsters before making important decisions about their message. There are completely rational reasons for this. Very few elections are won by a single message or candidate statement, but a great many are lost by a single one. Messages are the coin of the realm of politics, but the risk/reward calculus of each individual message requires careful strategic deliberation. And deliberation takes time.
Insurgent campaigns that lack this level of risk-aversion can rise with astonishing speed because they can create new and distinctive messages at a rapid pace without the usual deliberation, but they can also implode suddenly and spectacularly, and political pros are conditioned to wait them out and hope they do. That gives insurgents a window of opportunity to launch damaging attacks. But no insurgent in a national election in recent memory has moved as quickly as Trump, or lasted long enough to destroy so many other serious contenders as they tried to wait him out.
Trump’s Unity Isn’t Ideas, But Himself
Trump’s fling-it-all-at-the-wall tempo of attacks and messages is unique. It starts with the fact that essentially everything that comes from the Trump campaign comes from Trump himself – his rambling, stream-of-consciousness speeches, his interviews, his tweets that he clearly writes himself in his distinctive style.
This gives Trump’s message approach a remarkable thematic and stylistic cohesion at any tempo (despite its underlying incoherence in terms of facts or principles, neither of which concern him). It extends to the fact that—bluntly speaking—Trump’s basic style is “BS,” in which he is interested neither in the truth nor in lying to his audience, but just in riffing on a theme without much connection to the facts and certainly without bothering to fact-check anything he says before he says it. Trump has repeatedly shown his willingness, to a degree unprecedented in politics, to heave personal insults at his opponents, mocking their appearance and their poll standing with put-downs.
These are all approaches Trump has been using for years and years. He didn’t improvise them from study of the battlespace, but just went with what he already knew how to do. But he was also able to gain unusually rapid traction because—unlike the typical insurgent—he had already been nationally famous for three decades and a fixture on network television.
(As we shall see throughout this review of Trump’s M.O. while he has executed some shrewd maneuvers, his success thus far says more about his ability to exploit his adversaries’ OODA Loops than having a particular mastery of his own.)
Inverting the Campaign Rules about Messaging
Moreover, there are time-tested rules for messaging that any campaign veteran knows: if an attack is winning, you stick with it as long as it keeps delivering dividends; if you’re talking about something that’s hurting you, the best approach is to cut your losses and move on to something else.
Trump regularly inverts this rule, as well, which is again disorienting for experienced politicians who are conditioned to see sticking with a message as a sign that it’s working and abandoning a message as a sign that it’s failing. If Trump taunts his opponent and feels like he’s drawing blood, he bores in with a rapidly shifting series of attacks.
By the time a campaign like Jeb’s can work out a response, Trump has moved on and is hitting him from a different angle, then another, then another. At least over the short term, this follows Boyd’s stress on a varied approach that keeps the opponent constantly off-balance.
On the other hand, when Trump shoots off his mouth and seems to get himself into a lot of trouble, he may backtrack slightly or deny what he meant, but invariably he will dig in and keep talking about it, using stray voltage to bait his critics into giving him more free media attention (the scarce and valuable commodity he has hoarded).
This showcases Trump’s willingness to be outrageous and his refusal to back down—essential parts of his brand. Again, the mismatch between how Trump reacts and how experienced politicians are conditioned to expect their opponents to react confounds their ability to process what he’s doing.
Jeb and Walker Mismanage Time and Space
Why were Jeb and Walker hit so disproportionately hard by this? Partly because they were in front and had the most to lose, partly because they had the largest staffs and therefore potentially the slowest-moving campaigns, and partly due to their personal temperaments. But also because of time and space.
In Jeb’s case, time: he ran his last campaign in 2002, and the issue environment and political mood had changed a lot since 2012, let alone a decade earlier. Unlike Trump, he hadn’t spent the past several years in the center of the public eye. He has repeatedly proven slow to adapt his mental models to the current reality, as well as slow to adapt to fluid situations.
His disastrous confrontation with Rubio over missed votes (at the third debate) was a textbook example of letting an opponent inside your OODA Loop. Jeb built on a newspaper attack, which had allowed Rubio adequate time to prepare a response. He then launched it at an inopportune time—as Jonathan Last wrote at the time:
Bush’s attack was almost certainly a pre-meditated set piece. Yet he didn’t have the political sense to see that Rubio was in a very good frame coming off of an answer where he beat the snot out of the moderators. Bush had no ability to read the scene and understand that it would have been better in that moment not to take the shot. He had a plan, so he robotically stuck to it.
Finally, unlike Rubio, Jeb never saw coming the trap he was walking into, which should have been obvious to anyone with basic situational awareness, when Rubio asked the classic lawyer’s leading question about how Jeb had supported John McCain when he was making his late-2007 comeback. That allowed Rubio to drop the “but McCain missed more votes than I did” crusher that left Jeb too deflated to respond.
Most of Jeb’s failures to read the scene and react faster have happened offstage (although this is hardly the only example from the debates). His slow reaction times contributed mightily to his failure to adjust and formulate an effective response to the Trump barrage over the summer.
Walker’s problem was one of space. Walker had been in elective office for 25 years, and had faced the voters of Wisconsin three times in the past five years, most recently November 2014, so he was much fresher from the fight than Jeb. But the depth of his local experience turned into a liability. Boyd was fond of citing four interlocking concepts favored by the German military:
- Fingerspitzengefühl, which translates more or less as fingertips-feel, a commander’ s ability to hold in his mind a map of the whole battlefield, not just its fixed terrain but its fluid, shifting movement of forces;
- Auftragstaktik, the ability to give orders at a fairly high level of generality and have them carried out faithfully by subordinates focused on the objective, rather than direction by micromanagement;
- Einheit, an animating unity of purpose that keeps the whole organization focused not only on a single goal but on a common way of doing things (the more einheit an organization has, the more it can trust in management by auftragstaktik); and
- Schwerpunkt, or the point of decision—the crucial concept of focusing on the opponent’s point of maximum vulnerability (or in some cases, the maximum point of resistance that needs to be defeated) and concentrating as much of one’s forces and efforts on that particular target as possible at once.
Walker’s long and remarkable success in Wisconsin, including victories in Democratic-leaning Milwaukee County and statewide wins in a Democratic-leaning state, derived in large part from his mastery of fingerspitzengefühl. Walker’s natural voter base in Wisconsin was economically or educationally downscale white voters, like blue-collar workers and voters with no college degrees, who saw him as one of their own, an “aggressively normal” beer-and-brats Harley rider, Midwestern to his core, who never finished college after leaving to take a job, married a widow 12 years his senior, and was fond of using his Instagram feed to display his brown-bag ham-and-cheese lunches.
Walker almost literally knows the political geography of the Milwaukee and Wisconsin general electorates like the back of his hand (but not so much Republican primary electorates, having dropped out early from the 2006 gubernatorial primary and backed his opponent, clearing the field for his own mostly uncontested 2010 nomination). He has long been his own chief strategist, notorious for a near-obsessive attention to the details of his message and strategy. He’s the guy who knows the terrain better than the experts.
Given this background, Walker did not hire a national strategist for his otherwise heavily staffed campaign, preferring to retain personal control over strategy. In a vastly larger campaign than his usual statewide operations, that raised concerns early on about micromanagement, which of course could slow down the speed of the rest of his campaign, the opposite of an organization run on principles of auftragstaktik.
It was worse than that: the very local mastery at the center of Walker’s mental models is impossible at the scale of a national campaign, like Eisenhower trying to oversee the whole European theater on horseback. Even before Trump’s entry in the race, Walker had stumbled several times by reversing course on issues and aspects of his message as he struggled to figure out what would resonate with the national and early-state electorates.
Time also became a factor. Walker had counted on having time in the summer and early fall to work out the kinks of his message, get his rookie mistakes out of the way, and prepare for the progressively more serious stages of the campaign to follow.
Instead, Trump swiftly cannibalized Walker’s targeted voter base, even though he was a candidate far removed from “one of us”: a New York City billionaire who was born to wealth, loves to brag about his Wharton School degree, and is on his third wife, a Yugoslavian-born fashion model. Yet Trump’s un-P.C. way of talking resonated far more with the shifts in national Republican voter sentiment than Walker’s low-key, nice-guy Wisconsin general election persona.
The Washington Post, writing at the end of August, described a combatant whose opponent was well inside his OODA Loop:
Walker’s backers see a campaign discombobulated by Trump’s booming popularity and by his provocative language on immigration, China and other issues. They see in Walker a candidate who — in contrast to the discipline he showed in state races — continues to commit unforced errors, either out of lack of preparation or in an attempt to grab for part of the flamboyant businessman’s following.
When Walker ran short on resources, he did what his 2006 experience and its aftermath had conditioned him to do: cut his losses and drop out long before the voting.
Trump Photobombs the Republican Field
With Walker and Perry sunk at sea and Jeb driven on the shoals, the remaining field mostly divided into three groups: candidates nimble enough to keep up with how Trump was shifting the landscape, and reorient themselves accordingly (such as Cruz and Rubio); candidates who were never really competing for voters who might listen to Trump (mainly Kasich), and candidates far enough removed from the central theaters of operations that they could stick safely to their original plans or make adjustments that had no effect on the race anyway.
But some were also adversely affected by Trump’s alteration of reality around them. For example, Bobby Jindal—a major victim of how Trump sucked the free-media oxygen from the field, drove the debate away from non-immigration domestic policy proposals, and made less room for dark horse candidates on the main debate stage—ran short of money and dropped out in November rather than run up a bunch of campaign debt. Jindal sometimes ruefully joked that he should drop Trump’s name at random intervals in his speeches just to get media coverage.
Rand Paul had hoped to inherit his father’s oddly constructed coalition (consisting of principled libertarians, national security doves, and racist, neo-Confederate, or conspiracy-minded cranks) and expand it by being more moderate, more charismatic, and less odd than his father.
That strategy had already been unraveling for some months before Trump’s arrival, but the third and least savory segment of the old Ron Paul movement seems to have decamped more or less en masse to Trump, as it turned out that they were never really in it for the libertarian principles but for the newsletter crackpottery that always embarrassed Paul’s more thoughtful supporters and sympathizers.
Paul seemed on the verge of dropping out until he reoriented his campaign away from pursuing victory towards giving voice to the principled remnant of his movement, the segment that was always least attracted to Trump. It remains to be seen how long Paul will stay in the race, having unsubtly threatened to quit if he didn’t make the main stage for the December 15 debate in Las Vegas.
Chris Christie, already known for being blunt and loud, has gotten progressively blunter and louder, and is now picking up enough in the New Hampshire polls that he is headed towards an inevitable collision with Trump.
The Closed Loop: The Doctor Is Not Listening
Before you can use speed to disorient your opponent and induce panic decisions, the opponent must first notice what you are doing. An opponent who is deceived by ambiguity or simply oblivious to his surroundings must simply be made to await the consequences of reality intruding on him.
Ironically, the 2016 contender whose rise concurrent with Trump in the early fall was not affected at all by Trump was Ben Carson. One reason for this is that Carson himself was not only running a highly unconventional campaign, to all appearances he operates in such a closed informational loop that he simply doesn’t process news from outside his favored sources at all. Trump could change the reality on the ground all he wanted, but Carson was going to keep doing his own thing because doing his own thing is what he does.
In time, this has caught up to him. Carson has faded in the polls as voters see his missteps and unpreparedness on major issues, mostly independently of Trump. But Carson’s fall holds lessons for Trump as well, as we shall see. A candidate who ignores any information that doesn’t fit his implicit orientation can avoid distraction, but will sooner or later find to his peril that he is relying on feedback that has lost touch with the reality he is trying to affect.
2008: The Last Bombing Run
We’ve discussed thus far the basics of the OODA Loop and how Trump has exploited it. But before we get to where the Loop may begin to bend against him (or some of his adversaries), we need to consider the concept of a subsidiary or dependent loop. That is, a theater of operations that a combatant swoops in and dominates, only to later discover to his grief that he has drawn his attention away from the main battlefield.
One example of this was the 2012 Iowa Straw Poll, in which Michele Bachmann successfully drew Tim Pawlenty into a contest of strength that drained Pawlenty’s funds and forced him out of the race when he lost to his fellow Minnesotan. But it turned out that Bachmann hadn’t actually won anything. She was shortly eclipsed by Herman Cain in the polls, and ended up finishing dead last in the Iowa Caucus.
We have another recent example of a national campaign that grasped the outlines of the OODA Loop but still got disoriented and lost the main battlefield: the last general election campaign by a combat pilot, John McCain in 2008.
McCain, nine years younger than Boyd and a carrier-based Navy bomber pilot in Vietnam, started his race against Barack Obama in a polling and organizational hole, but with the advantage that he was able to lock up his party’s nomination a lot earlier than Obama. McCain had survived that far by making his team leaner, jettisoning most of his old campaign advisers before staging a big primary comeback. That fit with the “maverick” senator’s preferred approach and temperament—as the old line goes, it’s no accident that McCain in the Navy always flew a one-seater airplane.
McCain had a few built-in advantages over Obama: he was not just vastly more experienced on the national political stage, a fixture on the Sunday shows with a prior presidential run under his belt, but (unlike Obama’s primary foe, Hillary Clinton), McCain had long, friendly relations with much of the national press corps. Despite his more advanced age, McCain was faster, nimbler on his feet, and much quicker to change course than Obama.
Fighting Inside the 24-Hour News Cycle
1992 was the first election after the Gulf War had launched cable news to national prominence and the end of the Fairness Doctrine unleashed national talk radio; 2004 was the first with blogs but the last before the real spread of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. A central battlefield of national campaigns in the years from 1992 to 2004 was the news cycle—the collection of stories that would dominate a few days’ coverage and talk.
Where 1980s campaigns had aimed for the good photo-op and soundbite for the evening news, 1990s-2000s campaigns aimed to control the round-the-clock news cycle. If you control the news cycle, you set the ground of what the campaigns are talking about. Winning campaigns like the Clinton “War Room” of 1992 mastered this; losing ones like Al Gore in 2000 were constantly reactive to the news cycle, and pushed off-message.
It’s easily forgotten now given how the campaign ended, but once battle was joined, McCain and his campaign manager Steve Schmidt tactically outfoxed Obama for much of summer 2008, winning news cycle after news cycle with attacks and ads needling Obama’s foreign trip, his celebrity status, and his self-importance. McCain was moving faster than Obama, and getting inside his head by pricking his vanity.
Then, he staged the tactically brilliant coup of picking Sarah Palin as his running mate. How tactically brilliant? Operational security was airtight. The media was totally in the dark that Palin was on her way until she arrived to be announced that morning. The Democrats were flabbergasted—they’d posted a website with advance opposition research on McCain’s potential running mates (including people like Eric Cantor, Charlie Crist, and FedEx CEO Fred Smith) but it didn’t include a word on Palin. Palin completely dominated the news cycle for a solid week after the GOP convention, and national polls showed McCain pulling even with Obama.
But even before the tactical audacity of the Palin pick started to get undermined by Palin’s own issues, McCain and Schmidt had totally lost sight of the larger picture McCain needed to win the election. McCain’s news-cycle victories were flawed in two ways.
But Social Media Had Overtaken the News Cycle
First, he was reinforcing things voters already priced into Obama (that he was inexperienced, overpromising, and full of himself) instead of defining Obama as having values out of step with the electorate. Second, while McCain was needling Obama, Obama’s digital organizing team was focused on the more critically important battlefield of identifying potential supporters and building direct communications with them, using the one-to-one targeting capabilities of social media to bypass the mass media news cycle in ways impossible as recently as 2004.
Thus, McCain was able to outfox Obama’s rapid response to news in a way that unsettled Obama and his communications team, but he wasn’t able to throw off the Obama campaign’s overarching strategy. McCain had flown his bomber into a subsidiary loop.
This made him vulnerable to being swamped by a new, external event: the September 2008 credit crisis. When it hit, he reacted again with speed and surprise, announcing a brief suspension of his campaign to fly back to DC to help handle the crisis. But McCain’s capacity to surprise no longer mattered. Obama and his team had, correctly, interpreted the crisis as a help to them and any solution as unpopular. They let McCain fly off into the sun.
Collapsing Trump’s Loop
If Trump has been so effective at strategy thus far in the campaign, does that mean he would be a successful general election candidate and a good commander-in-chief? No, it doesn’t, and in fact, there are significant warning signs that Trump may already be falling into some of the very traps Boyd warned against.
In some ways, Trump’s situation in the summer and fall of 2015 is similar to that of Imperial Japan in late 1941 and early 1942. The Japanese ran wild for six months after Pearl Harbor, using speed, strategic and tactical surprise, and sudden, overwhelming force to disorient their opponents and change their surrounding reality faster than they could react.
They also compelled their adversaries—in the short run—to fight the kind of war the Japanese had spent the previous 36 years planning for. The result took the weakest combatant (the Dutch) completely out of the fight, drove most distant and thus slowest to replenish its forces (the British Navy) out of the theater, and sent the locals underground (the Filipinos) or deeper into their interior (the Chinese).
But the Japanese didn’t apply Boyd’s OODA cycle as an open loop from which they could learn and adapt. They just came in with a cast-in-stone pre-existing skillset that was spectacularly well-suited to their initial offensive. They operated inside the enemy’s Loop, but without tending to their own, which remained mostly closed.
What Japan was not prepared for, or able to handle when it inevitably developed, was the expansion of the battlefield that was necessary to actually win the war. From mid-1942 on, the Americans launched 16 new warships for every one Japan produced the rest of the war.
Japan had expanded to its maximum limits. It could not win another inch of territory, and bled its navy white at Midway and its army dry in Burma, having exhausted the low-hanging fruit while the enemy’s available ground troops were multiplying. A war spanning the whole of the Pacific, China, Southeast Asia, and all the islands in between was far beyond Japan’s manpower capacity, and Japanese high command was slow to learn and adapt to a new and different war than the one they had started.
Trump has been winning by forcing the other contenders to the battlefields on which he has been training the past 35 years: mass-market free publicity, pro-wrestling-style smash-mouth reality TV, and collective-action negotiations of the type Trump knows well from multiple real-estate bankruptcies.
But, like Imperial Japan, this does not mean he’s an evolving combatant who can handle opponents shifting the battlefield and upsetting his ability to process reality. It just means that he has seized the initiative and planted his flag on all the territory his initial surge could reach by using the same approach he’s been honing for decades. He is just as much a creature of his own experience-based mental models as Jeb or Walker. The only difference is that his entry in the race was so unplanned that his opponents had to watch him in action before they could plot a counter-strategy.
The Gold-Plated Closed Loop
Winston Churchill once described the essential attributes of a great commander as having “massive common sense and reasoning power, not only imagination, but also an element of legerdemain, an original and sinister touch, which leaves the enemy puzzled as well as beaten.” Trump may have the legerdemain, but he sorely lacks the rest.
The signs we have seen so far of Trump suggest that, while he’s very shrewd and swift in observing, orienting, deciding, and acting when he’s on familiar terrain, he draws information from a fairly closed loop, and is not well-suited to expanding to a broader, less familiar battlefield. Therein lies his vulnerability in a primary or general election, as well as his deficiency as a potential commander-in-chief despite his natural grasp of the basic precepts of strategy, tactics, leverage, speed, and ambiguity.
The way Trump has dealt with facts in his public statements is a tipoff. Political speech routinely incorporates assertions of fact that range from debatable to unverifiable to provably false, and sometimes this is a sign of shrewd cynicism rather than self-deception.
But Trump has repeatedly made statements that he and his team had clearly made no effort to verify in advance, drawn from sources whose credibility should have been huge red flags, even though they were outside the common cultural and media conventional wisdom and therefore likely to be challenged.
In political debate, that represents a vulnerability waiting to be exploited; in international affairs, where presidents must routinely cut through misinformation and direct their staffs to do the same, it can be fatal.
The recent dustup over Trump’s claim—which was, at best, severely exaggerated—that he had seen video of thousands of Muslims celebrating 9/11 in Jersey City is a classic example of this. So is the fact that Trump cites Infowars reporting in campaign speeches based solely on having clicked a link on the Drudge Report, and has gone on Alex Jones’ conspiracy-theory-soaked show to trade praise with Jones.
Trump’s willingness to pitch public battles on the turf of things he reads on the Internet without even remotely credible confirmation suggests that—despite his savvy in evaluating information when dealing with the U.S. national media environment and the economic bargaining tables he’s excelled at—Trump is vulnerable to psyop disinformation campaigns once he gets outside his comfort zone.
As “Black Hawk Down” author Mark Bowden summarized his impression of Trump from spending a weekend with him in 1996 for a Playboy magazine profile:
Time after time the stories he told me didn’t check out…Apart from the comical ego, the errors, and the self-serving bluster, what you get from Trump are commonplace ideas pronounced as received wisdom…The ideas that pop into his head are the same ones that occur to any teenager angry about terror attacks. They appeal to anyone who can’t be bothered to think them through—can’t be bothered to ask not just the moral questions but the all-important practical one: Will doing this makes things better or worse? When you believe in your own genius, you don’t question your own flashes of inspiration.
Trump’s speeches and Twitter rants frequently focus on his poll standing, yet cherry-pick only those polls that are favorable, and his view of which pollsters are reliable is laughable to anyone who has followed the polling business in recent years.
Unlike successful campaigns of the past—in particular contrast to the massive Big Data and proprietary polling project that was crucial to President Obama’s 2012 re-election—Trump brags about having no polling operation of his own. He believes what he reads in the papers, if he likes it, and discards the rest. Nate Silver has noted how the short-term feedback loop in which Trump has been operating only encourages Trump’s confidence that he can keep prospering by doing the same things without adjusting his sources of information:
[I]t’s…possible that the Republican reluctance to criticize Trump stems from a surfeit of short-term thinking — combined with a possible misreading of the polls. Several times so far in the campaign, we’ve witnessed the following cycle:
- Trump says something offensive or ludicrous.
- Some pundits loudly proclaim that it could bring about the end of Trump’s campaign.
- Instead, Trump’s position remains steady or even improved in ballot-test polls.
- The same pundits therefore conclude that Trump is indestructible and impervious to criticism.
…[One] problem is that in a field that still has 14 candidates, more media coverage — even negative media coverage — potentially helps a candidate to…improve his position on the ballot test. In general, there has been a strong correlation between how well a candidate is performing on the ballot test and how much media coverage he’s receiving…Trump seems to understand this; indeed, he seems to issue his most controversial remarks and proposals precisely at moments of perceived vulnerability….Republicans are afraid to criticize Trump in part because it rarely produces instant gratification in a “win-the-morning” political culture that keeps score based on polls. Without seeing any repercussions, Trump goes farther out on a limb…
If this dynamic correctly describes the rest of the primary and general elections, then Trump does not need to learn and adapt in order to win. But most likely, it does not.
Making Trump Fight A Land War In Asia
The challenge Trump now faces is that the conditions of the summer and fall are not the same conditions under which the nomination will be decided. The battlefield will expand, and he must adjust his approach or meet the same fate as Imperial Japan.
The most obvious reason is the size of the field. We are down from 17 candidates to 14, and if history is any guide, more than half of those 14 should be out of the race after South Carolina (the third state to vote).
As the number of candidates narrows, the share of the vote needed to win grows. Iowa’s Republican caucus has been won with as little as 24 to 26 percent of the vote (by Rick Santorum in 2012 and Bob Dole in 1996) and only once since 1980 has a candidate won 40 percent (George W. Bush winning 41 percent in 2000). New Hampshire has been won with as little as 27 percent (Pat Buchanan in 1996). McCain won 47.2 percent of the popular vote across all primaries in 2008; that was the lowest winning share of the GOP primary vote since 1976.
A candidate who can’t break out from 25 to 30 percent cannot win enough delegates to clinch the nomination. That’s what happened to factional candidates who limited their appeal to the grievances and resentments of a disproportionately downscale voter base, like Buchanan (20.8 percent of the vote in 1996) or Jesse Jackson (29.4 percent in 1988).
While Trump’s hold on that 25 to 30 percent of the vote has been surprisingly consistent, national and early-state primary polls since Labor Day have shown no growth in his support. Meanwhile, an increasing number of potential GOP primary voters view Trump unfavorably. That suggests potential limits on his ability to scale his current voter base upwards as past frontrunners-turned-nominee have done—unless he can adjust his message to the needs of a changed battlefield dominated by voters not already on the Trump Train.
Instead, he seems determined to bask in the glow of the people already backing him, feeding them increasing quantities of what has already bound them to his candidacy. This is where the risk of a closed loop comes in, if Trump disdains polls and research of his own. If Trump keeps being gratified by crowd sizes, poll standing, and tweets showing him with a solid quarter of the public on his side, he will simply keep building a bigger wall between the voters he has and the voters he needs.
Bigger Voter Pools Dilute Trump’s Support
The second way the battlefield is changing is who the voters are. People responding to polls months before the election are not the same universe as the people who actually show up to vote in primaries, and even less so in caucuses. In November 2012, 129 million people voted (61 million for Mitt Romney), but only 18 million voted in the 2012 GOP primaries, about 12.5 percent of all registered voters and less than a third of all GOP general election voters.
Iowa had 2.1 million registered voters in January 2012; 121,501 of them voted in the Republican caucus, around 5.7 percent. New Hampshire had about 767,000 registered voters in 2012; even with a primary open to Independents and no Democratic primary, 248,475 voted in 2012 GOP primary, about 32 percent.
Primary campaigns are hugely dependent on their ability to mobilize their voters to actually show up at the polls, and most every effort that has been made to narrow the polling universe to people likely to vote (by traditional metrics) has cut deeply into Trump’s poll support. That doesn’t mean he can’t turn out his voters, but it means he needs to open his OODA Loop to observe and orient himself towards the propensity of his poll supporters to vote, and make decisions and take action to make it happen.
The third way the primary battlefield shifts once the voting starts: the voters take it more seriously. They pay more attention, and many decide late. There are reams of polling and political-science evidence showing that voters tune in much more as an election gets closer, especially a primary election. A candidate like Trump, who has coasted on high name recognition, can see the electoral mood shift suddenly as voters take a closer look at him and at the alternatives.
Fourth, one of Trump’s major assets may degrade as he gets deeper into the primaries: his ambiguity about running third party. The more primaries he files in, the more states will follow Ohio in forcing him off the November ballot unless he files and wins a lawsuit challenging “sore loser” laws.
Also, the more he loses, the more the potential appeal of a Trump third-party run dims as he loses the “winner” sheen. Between April 26 and the July 21 end of the GOP convention, 13 states have deadlines for filing for the ballot, including Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, and Indiana.
The changing battlefield is not the only way his opponents could degrade Trump’s OODA Loop as the calendar turns. A truly sophisticated approach might also consider exploiting Trump’s vulnerability to misinformation. I remember once watching a mid-80s “Monday Night Baseball” broadcast where Howard Cosell, a great boxing and football announcer who knew nearly nothing about baseball, announced that Keith Hernandez had begged him before the game not to reveal that Hernandez’ lifetime batting average was .152.
It’s possible that the original statistic given Cosell was not quite as ridiculous as that and he mangled it on-air, but it seemed pretty obvious that Hernandez had pranked Cosell with bad information, knowing he could take advantage of Cosell’s inability to distinguish good information about baseball statistics from bad. A candidate who will quote Infowars stories in campaign speeches and retweet random white supremacists and made-up statistics is exceptionally vulnerable to being fed misinformation that will blow up in his face like a cartoon exploding cigar.
The two candidates best positioned to surge past Trump in the spring of 2016 are a pair of much younger men noted for their quickness of mind and gifts as extemporaneous speakers: Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Each has showcased a distinct approach to expanding the battlefield and shifting the ground on their opponents.
The Ground War: Ted Cruz and the Grassroots
Cruz’s strategy to get past Trump and his other opponents seems to rely on four prongs: (1) altering the opponent’s reality by using grassroots turnout to change the electorate; (2) exploiting the sequential nature of the primary calendar to create momentum; (3) leveraging to Cruz’s advantage how Trump has reshaped the debate; and (4) using ambiguity to leverage Trump’s own ambiguity against Cruz’s unambiguously loyal Republican opponents.
First, it’s notable that Cruz and his oddly disorganized coterie of SuperPACs have spent almost as little money on TV ads as Trump, yet this has not stopped him from pulling into first place in Iowa, second in national polls, and fourth in New Hampshire. Why?
Partly due to his strong built-in brand identity as the Senate’s “Mr. Conservative” and bête noir of DC Republicans, but also in part because he has invested his strong fundraising haul heavily into the kinds of grassroots organizing and digital voter targeting that was the hallmark of the Obama campaign’s ability to expand the Left end of the electorate. As a recent Washington Post profile described the thinking behind the Cruz micro-targeting and voter-profiling operation:
Cruz’s campaign manager, Jeff Roe…explained the campaign’s heavy investment in data and analysis. It’s critical because of changes in the nature of the electorate, popular media, polling and campaign finance law, which make many of the old axioms of campaigning — gathering endorsements, purchasing high-cost broadcast ads — less valuable…’There is no handbook for this,’ the Missouri-based political consultant said of running a presidential campaign in 2016. ‘The conventional wisdom has been destroyed. What you can do is rely on data.’
Cruz’s “psychographics”-based operation has its critics, but if it works, just as Trump is targeting the electorate that responds to polls, Cruz will change the electorate that shows up on caucus or primary day, so that by the time Trump adjusts, his information is already obsolete—a classic Boydian strategy.
Moreover, the advantage of countering Trump with grassroots organizing rather than a TV ad air war is that it is resource-intensive and bypasses the mainstream media. Just as Obama (who had a lot more help from the media at a macro level, despite his losses of petty-ante news cycles) was able to deploy his financial edge over McCain by digital data-mining and ground organizing and thus render cable news cycles less relevant, Cruz can use his own small-donor-driven financial edge fly under the radar of Trump’s massive advantage in free media and confront Trump with a strategic picture that forces Trump (if he recognizes his danger) to spend his own money. With a campaign whose fundraising capabilities consist mainly of selling trucker hats, that means reaching into Trump’s personal pockets.
For a man who claims to be worth $10 billion, that should be no great effort, but even if Trump’s wealth is as liquid as he likes to portray, he has been markedly unenthusiastic about spending his personal fortune on this campaign. That doesn’t mean Trump has no ground organization—there have been reports since August that Trump was building a ground campaign in Iowa—but it clearly forces him onto a broader battlefield that neutralizes some of his advantages and forces him to choose between a fight he does not really want and continued dominance of a subsidiary loop.
Defeating the Winner Perception
Second, despite Trump’s apparent strength in national polls, Cruz’s targeting of Iowa focuses on the most logical schwerpunkt for defeating Trump (puncturing his air of being a winner) by using the sequential nature of primaries to hand him a defeat in the first state to actually vote.
Cruz’s further focus on South Carolina and the March 1 “SEC Primary” targets Rubio as well by aiming to build a string of wins that deliver a knockout blow before Rubio can clear the rest of the competition out of the way and get enough wins of his own to keep fundraising and momentum alive for the second half of the calendar, which favors Rubio.
This is fairly traditional strategy—think of Napoleon defeating Austria and Russia in sequence at Austerlitz before the Prussians could even enter the war. And there is logic in Cruz saving his TV ad money until the field narrows and he can see the whites of his opponents’ eyes, given what we have learned about the futility of SuperPAC TV ads in the crowded 2016 field compared to their use in sequential one-on-one battles in 2012.
Like his grassroots strategy, Cruz’s approach depends on whether he is right in his observational hypothesis of who the potential voters are—he has seemed prone to wishful thinking in this regard—but if the underlying theory of his campaign is correct, this aspect of his strategy is the optimal way to pursue it, with or without Trump in the field.
A Learning Robot
Cruz’s third and fourth strategic choices are improvisations in response to how Trump reshaped the battlespace. They show more flexibility and learning capacity than Cruz’s critics might suspect. Cruz’s major vulnerability is being painted as an unelectable Goldwater-esque extremist even within the context of the GOP, let alone the general electorate.
But the high profile of Trump, the extreme positions he has taken on some issues (especially immigration), and his overall air of irresponsible anti-establishment rage combine to make Cruz (an Ivy League-pedigreed senator who served in the Bush administration and was appointed to a senior position by the man now serving as governor of Texas) seem positively reassuring by comparison. Trump may be shifting the “Overton Window” (the perceived boundaries of what is and is not acceptable public discourse) and Cruz is opportunistically drafting in his wake.
Cruz could even make a similar virtue of having Rubio as his chief “moderate” opposition. Because Rubio’s own record is so conservative and he agrees with Cruz on so many issues, it will be difficult for Rubio to paint Cruz as outside the mainstream without condemning himself.
Where Trump has created ambiguity around his threat to run third party, Cruz has exploited it by ostentatiously refusing to criticize Trump. At one point, after reports surfaced of Cruz making some fairly tame comments to a fundraiser about Trump’s fitness to be president, Trump launched an opening shot across the bow:
Cruz responded, not by counterattacking Trump, but by embracing him:
This creates two levels of ambiguity. One, it raises the question what Cruz is up to. Is he courting Trump’s voters? Is he appeasing Trump himself to deter a third-party bid? Are they somehow in cahoots? Is Cruz catering to hitherto Trump-friendly talk radio hosts, some of whom (like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin) may be starting to turn on Trump because Trump attacked Cruz first?
The second level of ambiguity is an attack on what may be Rubio’s greatest asset: the perception that he is more likely to win a general election than Cruz. If Cruz can make primary voters believe that only he can sideline Trump—that the choice is not Rubio-Hillary or Cruz-Hillary, but Rubio-Hillary-Trump or Cruz-Hillary—he can alter the voter decision-making calculus that underlies Rubio’s pitch.
The Air War: 40-Second Rubio
Rubio seems to be pursuing a different strategy than Cruz, relying on (1) his ability to communicate and maneuver in a dynamic mass-media environment, (2) his ability to exploit the endgame conditions of a Republican primary, and (3) using ambiguity to mask his approach to grassroots voter turnout.
First, debate moments like his missed-votes showdown with Jeb have demonstrated Rubio’s ability to read a scene and deliver an attack on what had been a perceived vulnerability. But perhaps even a better example of his skill in this regard was displayed in a mid-November dustup with Cruz over immigration.
The obvious schwerpunkt for any GOP primary attack on Rubio is his involvement with the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill in early 2013. It’s the heavy artillery, the one moment of Rubio’s career that raises questions of trust, judgment, and consistency on an issue of importance to many primary voters, especially those drawn to Trump that Cruz may want to peel off.
Yet Cruz engaged Rubio on the issue in the second week of November, unexpectedly early in the game. Rubio’s campaign immediately turned the debate into questions about how different Cruz’s own proposals really were, citing amendments and testimony Cruz offered in early 2013 discussing (among other things) expanded legal immigration and openness to eventual legal status for illegal aliens.
Cruz was forced to argue Senate procedure to contend that his amendments were poison pills not reflective of his own beliefs, and was rushed quickly into releasing his own immigration position paper, something he clearly would not otherwise have done on a Friday afternoon in November. In a surprisingly short time, on an issue of maximum vulnerability for Rubio, he had nonetheless reversed positions and gotten on Cruz’s six—a performance worthy of “40 Second Rubio.”
That’s not an easy trick to pull on Cruz, a veteran debater and advocate known for his ability to turn the tables on ambush interviewers and launch extemporaneous attacks in response to unexpected Senate parliamentary moves. But conditions are never static; just a few hours later, the terrorist attack in Paris wiped the whole back-and-forth off the front pages.
Moderation Is a Virtue
Second, the delegate rules and the primary calendar naturally favor a more moderate candidate who can appeal to blue-state and purple-state Republicans who may be more receptive to whichever candidate seems most electable. This is a different kind of expansion of the battlefield from the early-state polling environment.
“Moderate” is not really Rubio’s brand, given his history as a conservative Florida House Speaker who fought his state’s moderate Republican governor (Charlie Crist), endorsed Mike Huckabee in 2008, and launched a Tea Party challenge that drove Crist from the party in a bitter 2010 primary.
But then, Rubio has shown before that he has the rare Protean political talent of remaking his ideological identity while actually changing very little in the way of his positions, shifting his hue for different audiences and times without leaving behind a lot of the kind of embarrassing flip-flops that less preternaturally skilled operators like Trump and Hillary Clinton must contend with.
Thus, the man who started his political career in the Miami office of the Dole-Kemp campaign remade himself as a nuts-and-bolts local West Miami city commissioner, moved into a new district to become a State representative, moved up the ladder as a Jeb Bush loyalist, led the assault on Crist from the Right, reinvented himself as a Tea Partier, set out to brand himself in DC as a foreign policy neoconservative and immigration bridge-builder and deal-maker, then launched a presidential bid aimed at uniting the establishment and Tea Party factions directly into the teeth of Jeb.
Somehow, he has managed all this while remaining mostly consistent in his stances on issues, and is selling himself as a new generation of leadership even though he has spent more than twice as many years in elected office as Hillary Clinton.
With Walker’s collapse, Rubio has little competition for the role of party uniter, so he has aimed to wait out Cruz’s early-state advantage and use the short timeframe leading into the March/April blitz to leverage his advantage in TV communications and his superior positioning in later states to overfly Cruz. But Rubio has some local outreach tricks up his sleeve too, like his use of his youthful years as a Nevada Mormon to build ties with a crucial bloc in the last of the four early states, where he may need a win.
Perhaps Rubio Is Cloaking Himself
Third, Rubio’s team has been unusually reticent about running to the press to describe what they are doing. That has created a lot of uncertainty. It could just be a smoke screen, but it keeps his adversaries off-balance. A recent National Review article hit Rubio for undervaluing the Iowa grassroots and left readers with the distinct impression that he plans a campaign heavy on national TV exposure and light on ground operations:
Rubio’s team believes…that a sprawling operation weighs down a campaign and wastes precious resources that could be spent on TV ads that reach more voters. The senator’s lieutenants have pointed to Bush and Walker…as proof positive that organizational heft is overrated…The nominating process is certainly becoming more nationalized, and Rubio’s team believes television spots, media coverage, and momentum are key…Rubio has spent just 27 days this campaign season on the ground in Iowa…Terry Sullivan, Rubio’s campaign manager, gave a window into his team’s air-heavy strategy…when he told the New York Times this week: ‘More people in Iowa see Marco on ‘Fox and Friends’ than see Marco when he is in Iowa.’…The Rubio campaign’s attitude is…that massive field operations are no guarantee of success.
That could be a risky play, unless Rubio’s team has correctly assessed the significance of the timing and terrain of 2016, at least on behalf of a uniquely telegenic candidate. Analysts of recent campaigns have criticized GOP reliance on TV advertising as unduly costly and diminishing in its returns and warned of the dangers of failing to build a modern online campaign structure. The presence of many Romney 2012 veterans on Rubio’s team also has savvy observers wondering if he has hired people capable of learning the lessons of Romney’s defeat.
Perhaps stung by this reaction, Rubio’s campaign grudgingly cooperated with David Drucker’s response in the Washington Examiner:
Rubio’s organization doesn’t appear as unprepared for the coming ground war as his opponents had hoped…[an] assessment…shared…during multiple interviews with GOP Insiders in Iowa and other states, including Rubio supporters and neutral players. Tom Mitchell…told the Examiner in late October…that he believed Rubio’s Iowa field operation wasn’t receiving due credit. Mitchell, who hasn’t endorsed in the primary, said his opinion hasn’t changed…Some senior Iowa Republicans predicted…that Rubio was poised to surprise the naysayers. They chocked up the negative reviews of his ground game both to opponents who are naturally looking to blunt his momentum — and his campaign’s strategic decision not to broadcast every tactical advance it achieves… ‘The campaign is getting ready to release a list of supporters,’ said an Iowa Republican backing Rubio. ‘I think people are going to be surprised — at least Iowa people will be surprised — by who’s on this team.’…’Rubio has a stronger team than people know,” added a Hawkeye State Republican insider who is neutral and requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. ‘I travel around the state a lot; I see his people at those meetings. For some reason, the Rubio camp just hasn’t announced who they are yet.’
So, which is it? Ambiguity abounds, but does it conceal hidden strength or weakness? There are five distinct possibilities regarding Rubio’s ground operation:
- He doesn’t have much of a ground game, and will fail spectacularly as a result;
- He doesn’t have much of a ground game, and will demonstrate that a TV-centric national strategy can work for a charismatic candidate in a time-compressed primary calendar;
- He doesn’t have much of a traditional ground game, but is balancing it with a strong digital organizing game similar to Obama’s in 2008 and 2012;
- He has a stronger ground game than he is letting on, sees no reason to disclose what he’s doing, and hopes to catch his opponents by surprise; or
- He doesn’t have much of a ground game, but is planning to do what amounts to a buyout of Jeb Bush’s extensive infrastructure once he can force Jeb out of the race.
Regardless of the answer, Rubio’s opponents lack the kind of advance notice of his real tactical play that they have for Cruz and Jeb, who have made their bets in the open.
That 90s Show: The Dial-Up Speed of Hillary Clinton
Whoever the Republicans nominate, the advantages of a Boydian approach in confronting Hillary Clinton are obvious. Clinton’s strengths as a candidate are well-known and heavily dependent on factors that are already fixed (name recognition, gender, long tenure in the public eye) or depend on maintaining the demographic conditions of the last war. Her weaknesses also include some fixed factors (her age, her established negatives).
But other strengths and weaknesses should not be underestimated. On the plus side, she’s the classic A+ student who combines brains with thorough preparation for a predictable event like the Benghazi hearings, friendly interviews and press conferences, and debates with Democratic opponents. On the negative side, she is notoriously uncomfortable with spontaneity of all kinds. Chaos is not Hillary Clinton’s friend.
Clinton is a shrewd operator who is perfectly comfortable with adjusting her positions to her political advantage. But her calculating approach rarely works well when she is caught out in public before she can make up her mind and poll-test the desired approach.
This was graphically displayed in late 2007 when she was trapped in a debate waffling on questions about drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants before she had time to formulate a pat response. Her press conferences on email storage and deletion, a subject she clearly doesn’t fully understand, have been disastrous. And her inner circle is not only dominated by sycophants ill-suited to ensuring she operates in an open system, it also includes a lot of people who have been with her since the 1990s (despite the addition of some Team Obama folks). Her core of advisers look like the cast of “Cocoon.”
All of this calls into question whether age and isolation will leave the 68-year-old Clinton and her team ill-prepared to operate in the 2016 campaign environment if it proves more chaotic and fast-moving, and her opponent (or opponents) more nimble and versed in speed, ambiguity, and deception.
To their credit, the Clinton team seems to grasp the problem, at least in general terms—a recent New York Times profile of the Clinton campaign’s efforts to improve its operational relationship with the Democratic National Committee acknowledges that work needs to be done to bring the Clinton operation up to speed:
In recent weeks, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign aides have started to scrutinize what have historically been core functions of the party committee, some of which atrophied under President Obama, according to people briefed on the reviews. The reviews have been undertaken at the request of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, who has taken a particular interest in how the research and communications operations are functioning, according to the people briefed, who asked for anonymity to discuss private deliberations. Among the questions her team is looking at, gingerly, are staffing and dexterity in combating an increasingly unpredictable Republican field….for Mrs. Clinton, who has taken a while to adjust to the era of super PACs, the D.N.C. has been a logical place for her advisers to direct donors.
On the other hand, below the senior leadership level, Hillary will be able to draw on a potentially even more sophisticated digital turnout operation than the one Obama wielded. Thus, the weak link in her team may well be the candidate herself, and her speed and dexterity in adapting to a fluid situation. Even the best of militaries can rarely survive an ossified senior command structure.
How Trump Would Struggle against Hillary
Could Trump exploit these vulnerabilities? Possibly. Certainly his lack of loyalty to the Republican Party, its ideas, or its prior positions gives him the ideological flexibility to attack Hillary from some unexpected directions, and he would be likely to score a hit now and then in the same way McCain did to Obama—strike a nerve here, embarrass her there.
But Trump’s appeal has very little natural overlap with the existing Democratic base, and would likely inflame many of the people Clinton may otherwise struggle to excite. One of the lessons of elections past is that bomb-throwing candidates who are fun and disruptive when they are first in the race become easily ignored when they fall far behind, like Alan Keyes running against Obama for the Senate in 2004 or Carl Paladino (the most Trump-ish candidate in recent memory) running against Andrew Cuomo in 2010.
As a major-party nominee, moreover, Trump would lack the ambiguity he has deployed against Republicans, and in a two- or even three-candidate race, he could not exploit the collective action problems and Hobbesian scramble for free media that have enabled his rise. Indeed, few of the factors that have allowed Trump to trigger fear in his Republican opponents would even apply in a general election, and Clinton’s team would have plenty of time to prepare a counter to the things he has been doing so far.
That’s not to say that Trump’s celebrity and attention-grabbing power would present no opportunity to win (he would only be the nominee if he’d already figured out how to solve the low-turnout proclivities of his natural base), but ultimately, he could not deploy the same approach without major adaptations. Trump would have to prove himself flexible and open-minded enough to the dynamic general election system to attract the necessary 70 million voters. His ability to do so remains very much unproven.
Do Rubio and Cruz have that ability to operate inside Clinton’s OODA Loop, shifting the ground under her feet without being trapped themselves in a self-reinforcing closed loop? That too is unproven so far.
But both men are 24 years younger and have shown an impressive adaptability of a different kind so far, Cruz with his ground game, Rubio in his skill at bobbing and weaving. Of the two, it seems more likely that Rubio’s skillset is the one more ideally suited to exploiting a candidate who is overly deliberate in her ability to communicate and her feel for a fast-moving environment.
Either could potentially ride a Boydian approach to political strategy to the White House. Both would be well-advised to try.