Positioning in the Presidential Race

Unless Kerry makes a serious misstep, he is now likely to win Democratic Party nomination. How well is he doing in building a winning position against Bush? Though the media discusses elections in terms of issues, Sun Tzu teaches the contests are won on the basis of positioning. Most pundits have a one-dimensional view of political positions, placing candidates in a left-right spectrum, but one of the great insights of The Art of War is that the terrain is multi-dimensional. The battleground has physical limits; for example, there are a limited number of voters, but there are an unlimited number of characteristics that we can use to divide and utilize the battleground. In campaigns, this means segmenting and appealing to different groups of voters on the basis of what is important to them. President Bush has been actively targeting specific groups of voters in developing his position. His immigration guest worker program appeals to 42% of Hispanics. His Medicare drug benefit appeals to retired people. Both groups are traditional Democratic constituents, but in a country evenly spit between Republican and Democratic supporters, Bush is growing his footprint. The political calculation is that these programs will win over swing voters while alienating relatively few conservatives, leaving him in a stronger overall position. It may be counter-intuitive, but Sun Tzu teaches that success does not come from attacking opponents but from developing positions that others cannot attack and want to join. Gratuitous attacks that do not build up your position are costly and weaken you more than your opponent. Kerry would do well to start thinking about how he can strengthen his positions rather than how he can attack Bush. Kerry’s only chance is to identify positions that broaden his appeal. So far, he is focused on attack. For example, the issue of his favorite issue of the missing WMDs doesn’t appeal to any group of swing voters. Neither does the “lost jobs” arguments, since a tiny percentage of people are affected directly. The only people who care are these issues are already against Bush. On the other hand, since there are swing voters who identify themselves as Southerners, Kerry’s statements about the South have alienated a segment of the population.

So far, the only non-Democrat group that Kerry has won over is the Canadians, Unfortunately, neither they or the French get a vote.