Politeía Digest

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Why the Phrase “Campaign Strategy” Is Sometimes a Contradiction in Terms

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Out of the Blue

We hear a lot from the mouths of campaign “strategists,” as if a presidential campaign were really something that can be tightly plotted and managed. The variable no one should forget is the one that can’t be anticipated: the uncontrollable.

When President Obama said the other day that he’d been too busy to campaign for Tom Barrett in Wisconsin’s gubernatorial recall campaign, he may or may not have been telling the truth about his desire to spend political capital on a cause he probably knew was doomed.

But he voiced an ineluctable truth about presidents in election years: they always have two jobs—candidate and chief executive—and they’re always having to balance the two. To an unnerving degree, they are not in control of events around them, but at their mercy, like a farmer hoping that favorable weather holds just long enough to get the crop in.

Whatever he does from now to November, however clever (or vicious) his ads against Mitt Romney, and however skilled (or clumsy) a campaign Romney runs against him, Obama’s fate may be decided by the Greek economy. Or the Iranian nuclear program. Or the Supreme Court’s ruling in the health-care case. In an election as close as this one looks to be, any one variable can plausibly be said to turn the tide, and Obama is facing stormy seas across the whole horizon.

On the last weekend of the 2004 election, plenty of smart money thought John Kerry was winning—until Osama bin Laden released an ominous videotape, reminding voters that the country was still at war and leaving them wary of changing horses midstream. (Kerry himself may have complicated matters by initially responding to the video by criticizing George W. Bush for failing to capture bin Laden, which seemed to inject a note of politics into the debate.)

In 1991, George H. W. Bush looked unbeatable in the flush of victory in the Persian Gulf War. Just a year later, a sagging economy (and a nettlesome foil named Ross Perot) left him vulnerable indeed. Jimmy Carter had more than his share of troubles (including a primary challenge from Ted Kennedy), but he never really recovered from the disastrous failure of a mission to rescue the Americans held hostage in Iran in the spring of 1980. John McCain likewise never had much of a chance against Obama after the collapse of Lehman Brothers (and his own muddled response) in the fall of 2008.

The matter of uncontrollable events is a two-way street. Mitt Romney would be just as vulnerable to an uptick in the economy as Obama would be to the reverse. An October surprise need not be deliberately plotted.

This is not to say that campaigns, and the campaigners’ actions, don’t matter. They do. A less adroit candidate than Bill Clinton might well have lost in 1992, just as the second George Bush might well have lost to Kerry if his campaign hadn’t managed to boost turnout among his conservative base with carefully targeted appeals. Gerald Ford might have beaten Jimmy Carter if he hadn’t pardoned Richard Nixon. Read more in the Vanity Fair.

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Written by Theophyle

June 22, 2012 at 9:13 am

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