Thursday, January 28, 2016

Campaign Strategy and Button Mashing

Tonight comes another of the Republican presidential candidates’ debates, the seventh one so far. This one is in Des Moines, with the Iowa caucuses -- the first votes of the major parties’ primary season -- just a few days away on February 1.

The GOP debate would’ve been in the news this week, anyway, but is getting some extra attention thanks to current frontrunner Donald Trump’s announcement earlier this week he wouldn’t be participating due to his ongoing feuding with the host network, FoxNews.

The decision by Trump not to debate has inspired some discussion of campaign strategy, with pundits sharing all sorts of ideas regarding whether his non-participation will amount to a positive or a negative for Trump both in Iowa and going forward.

I find these discussions interesting to follow mostly because of how much time I’ve spent reading about and studying Richard Nixon’s various campaigns from the first 1946 Congressional campaign all of the way through his last 1972 run for reelection.

The “game” (as it were) has changed markedly, of course, with all of the old strategies mostly being inapplicable to today’s political landscape. That said, there are still analogues here and there, including the role of debates and whether they are good or bad for particular candidates.

Nixon, of course, famously welcomed the opportunity to debate John F. Kennedy in 1960, having experienced much success doing so versus various (less savvy) opponents in earlier campaigns. Then later in both 1968 and 1972, Nixon chose against participating in debates with Democratic candidates versus whom he was ahead in the polls, with most seeing those decisions as correctly made as far as risk-versus-reward was concerned.

As if to inspire such comparisons even further, at this very moment I’m seeing Evan Thomas, author of the recent Being Nixon: A Man Divided, popping up on FoxNews being asked what he thinks Nixon would think about Trump not debating. (Thomas unsurprisingly says he thinks Nixon would approve.)

Regarding Trump’s “strategy” (or lack thereof) as it relates to his decision not to attend the Iowa debate, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight tweeted a comment a couple of days ago that perhaps betrayed his own online poker-playing background:

“Still not sure if Trump is the most brilliant political tactician of his era or just a guy randomly mashing buttons,” opined Silver.

The comment evokes the idea of an amateurish or untutored poker player making what seem “random” decisions that don’t add up to a coherent understanding, contrasting that with a knowledgeable player (or “tactician”) whose unorthodox moves you’d have to trust as being part of a larger, complex design.

“Button-masher” perhaps seems to fit Trump (here involved deeply in his first serious political campaign) more readily than does “brilliant political tactician,” but I think like all of the candidates he probably falls somewhere in between these two extremes.

As did presidential candidates in earlier decades, too, for that matter.

Images: “Press this button,” Howard Lake (adapted). CC BY-SA 2.0 (top); @NateSilver538 (bottom).

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