The Winning Ground

This is the fourth in a series of posts about how the Democrats could create a winning strategy this year. We have covered three of the five critical components in a strategic position thus far: philosophy, trends, and the leader. Today, we look at the single most important and complicated components: the ground. In Sun Tzu's strategic system, the ground or terrain is both the location and the goal of the competition contest.

In America, the ground consists of voters. More specifically, groups of voters, since politicians appeal to groups with shared interests. Voters can be grouped many different ways, which is one of the reasons that Sun Tzu describes the ground as infinite. There is no limit to the ways you can divide its voters up into different groups. The key is to find the groups that work to your advantage.

In electoral politics, one critical grouping is the states. As the election in 2000 demonstrated, presidents are not chosen by the majority of voters but by winning states with a majority of electoral votes. Complaining about losing a presidential election by the electoral vote despite winning the popular vote makes as much sense complaining about losing the Super Bowl by a field goal despite gaining the most yardage. Democrats need to remember that yardage doesn't count in the Super Bowl and the popular vote doesn't count in electing a president. This is one of the reasons why the much touted national polls showing Kerry beating Bush or Bush beating Kerry are meaningless drivel of no strategic value (other than misleading voters). Gore's popularity margin of 500,000 voters is erased if you eliminate a single city, New York, from the popular vote. With elections, as with war, it isn't how many supporters you have, but where they are. The local balance of forces rather than their total size of forces is a constant theme in Sun Tzu.

In 2000, the electoral ground was very closely balanced. One problem for the Democrats is that it has been slightly tilted toward the Republicans this year. If Bush won the same states this time, he would win 7 more electoral votes because the population in his states as increased while population in states that went Democratic in 2000 have lost population. In the Electoral College 2004 Allocation, there are ten states where the state winner in 2000 got less the 50% of the vote. These states, plus a few others, are considered "in play" this election year, accounting for about 75 of the 538 total electoral college votes. But these states are not created equal, Florida's 27 votes and Ohio's 20 make up the lion's share of the total. However, if the smallest of these states, New Hampshire (4 votes) had gone toward Gore, the election in 2000 would have turned out differently. Sun Tzu's strategy is about making the right calculations. In this election, the most important calculation is where to put limited resources to tip the electoral calculation in your favor.

In each battleground state, voters are--by definition--evenly balanced between parties. Local issues--such as immigration in New Mexico--may tilt the balance either way. Each state has its own demographics and issues. Retirement benefits are an issue in Florida, while jobs is always an issue in the "rust belt." And again, the swing votes are the key, not the voters committed to a given party. We can assume that most university professors in Iowa will vote Democratic and most Christian conservatives in Oregon will vote Republican, but the typical swing voters in Iowa are more conservative and more liberal in Oregon. The Democrats create a winning ground position by boiling the issues down into a few key items that make the difference in these areas. We can go as far to say that an issue isn't an issue at all if it doesn't help win groups of uncommitted voters in battleground states. Democrats must highlight only those relatively few issues that make a difference in these states to be successful. One of the reasons I suggested in an earlier post that they take a more culturally conservative philosophy was because progressive cultural agenda doesn't play well among the swing voters in any of these states, except possibly Oregon. The retirement community and Cuban populations in Florida are united with the blue collar workers in the Midwest in their discomfort with issues like gay marriage.