Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Another failure for the blitzkrieg strategy? -- updated

This is getting interesting. There's a new poll out in California that shows Meg Whitman leading Steve Poizner 39 to 37. Now it's always nice to be ahead (even if it is within the margin of error) but there are two small details that might undercut Whitman's sense of triumph:

1. She spent $70,000,000 establishing that two point difference;

2. It was a forty-nine point lead when she started.

This has been a fun campaign to follow (who among us is above a little schadenfreude at the sight of an arrogant billionaire getting blindsided?), but it has also been interesting from a strategic point of view, raising all sorts of neat questions about the best way of runninga campaign for a compound election, particularly if you happen to be a Republican in a blue state in 2010.

Strategies in simple elections are, well, pretty simple: you pick the course of action that gets you the most votes. There are actually two goals here -- you want to maximize both the size of your mandate and your chances of winning -- but they generally line up so well that we can treat them as one.

Strategies for compound elections are anything but simple. For starters you can no longer count on chances of winning and size of mandate lining up. Mandate becomes a secondary goal that has to be somehow weighed in. Worse yet, the probability of winning is now the product of the probabilities of winning two different elections, each of which has a different (in some cases radically different) optimal strategy.

Richard Nixon solved this problem with a hard pivot strategy -- run as far to the right as you can during the primary, then run as fast as you can to the center in the general election. He based this on the observation that Republicans tended to be much more loyal to their candidates. Once you had the primary under your belt, you could generally count on their votes. (Nixon had also seen what happened when Goldwater had gone hard right and stayed there in '64.)

Nixon's insight was brilliant. It was not, however, all that robust. Republican core voters will no longer tolerate movement to the center, even when their candidate is trailing badly. This leaves GOP candidates in blue and purple states with a serious problem. The Nixon strategy is forbidden; the Goldwater strategy is hopeless.

For a while, it looked like a blitzkrieg strategy might work. This approach involves coming in with a big war chest and a stack of endorsements, establishing a huge lead as early as possible, marginalizing primary competitors, and running a campaign for a de facto simple election. Charlie Crist and Meg Whitman both tried this approach and though it is possible that either or both might end up winning in the general election, it is safe to say that the blitzkrieg failed.

Crist has adopted what you might call a Gordian-knot strategy and skipped directly to the simple election. I don't see that option for Whitman. She can continue carpet-bombing the state with ads while not taking a position on anything that doesn't involve tax-cuts. No polls to date show Poizner ahead. It's possible she could scrape by without a course change.

Or she could try a hard right turn and match Poizner's positions on gay marriage and the Arizona immigration law, but it's awfully late in the game to try to win over social conservatives and these stances will be hard to live down in a general election. Still, if the trend lines continue to hold, she may not have a choice.

Update: Talking Points Memo has a completely different take on Poizner's surge, crediting it mostly to Whitman's association with Goldman Sachs. I suspect that the difference has a lot to do with geography. TPM is based in New York where it's easy to imagine the world revolving around the financial services industry. I'm sitting in Whittier, where I've noticed the following:

1. Various groups have been trying to push the Goldman Sachs story for months;

2. By contrast, the Poizner campaign has only gone into high gear recently (just before Whitman started to slide);

3. Goldman Sachs continues to play a small role in the campaign. The "Vultures" ad (which debuted April 30) is not in particularly heavy rotation. It's hard to see how it could have slashed Whitman's lead in about a week;

4. People seem to be paying more attention to more prominent ads featuring immigration, McClintock's endorsement, and Arnold Schwarzenegger morphing into Meg Whitman.

TPM is still my favourite place for politics, but I think they got this one wrong.

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