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Campaigns and OODA Loops

One of the things that's fascinating about the current campaign is the contrast in what you might call theory of battle. Eisenhower famously referenced an old West Point maxim when he remarked that plans themselves weren't worth a lot once the battle starts, but the act of having planned is invariably invaluable.

Which is another way of saying that while strategy may have to change, you're at a tactical disadvantage if you've never thought about your strategy.

The short version of the differences between the McCain and Obama campaigns seems to me to be that McCain is all about tactics, and Obama is all about strategy. (That could be why generals seem to prefer Obama.) That's consistent with their formative experiences: McCain, the fighter pilot, is conditioned (not to mention temperamentally disposed) to act quickly and without thought, because that's how you save your own life in the high-speed world of jet-powered air combat. Obama, the community organizer, is conditioned (and, again, temperamentally disposed) to act and think strategically, with a longer view in mind, because that's what community building is all about at a very fundamental level.

Which brings me to the OODA Loop. Like many important concepts, it can be seen as a new skin on old wine. John Boyd coined the term as a way to describe tactical response in precise terms. "OODA" unpacks to "Observe, Orient, Decide and Act." It's a superficially tactical concept, and apparently John McCain's campaign manager is a big fan:

John McCain's campaign director, the sort of Karl Rove acolyte who doesn't like that notion, though he ran the Bush/Cheney war room in 2004, who I know very well from his turnaround management of Arnold Schwarzenegger's landslide 2006 re-election as California's governor. He is the national political equivalent -- at least in this crazy race -- of the NFL coach Mike Martz. "Mad Mike," as he's known, was the master of the hurry-up-offense and the trick play as the coach of the "Greatest Show On Turf," the famed St. Louis Rams offense of the late '90s and early part of this decade. I won't bore you with football talk, or the details of what actually underlies what Schmidt is up to -- something I discussed with him at length two years ago called "the Boyd Cycle," a theory of warfare developed by retired Air Force Colonel John Boyd that is focused on a series of very rapid analyses and disorienting moves-- but suffice it to say that McCain was dead in the water when Schmidt took over three months ago and then bedeviled Obama constantly until the present financial fiasco. The one other thing I'll say about the Mike Martz offense is that all its inherent risk-taking allows an aggressive opponent to sack the quarterback on a regular basis.

For what it's worth, I think Rove himself has an excellent understanding of strategy with a small 's', though perhaps he's a bit weak on what military and diplomatic thinkers refer to as "grand strategy." (I mean, if you sacrifice your future standing for results in the short term, shouldn't you expect to get defeated once your enemy figures out the dimensions of your OODA loop?) But I digress.

Nate Silver at recently offered his analysis of some strangeness in a Minnesota tracking poll

But what's going on with Minnesota -- where SurveyUSA actually gives McCain a one-point lead?

The poll may be a mild outlier. SurveyUSA has generally shown more favorable numbers for John McCain in Minnesota than other agencies that have surveyed the state. But they aren't the only pollster to come up with numbers like this; Quinnipiac and the Star Tribune also show Minnesota close, although CNN and Rasmussen don't.

Markos Moulitsas has data on advertising expenditures that may explain the difference. Overall, in the week ended 9/30, Obama spent about 2.5x as much as John McCain on advertising. This is likely an underappreciated reason behind his recent polling surge. But in Minnesota, McCain outadvertised Obama better than 3:1. In fact, Minnesota was the only state in the entire country where McCain out-advertised Obama.

So McCain may literally have bought his way into a competitive race in Minnesota. It now rates as the 7th most important state in the election according to our tipping point metric, behind the traditional Big Three (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida), the New Two (Colorado, Virginia), and Michigan, which should probably now be scratched off the list.

It hasn't come cheaply, however, as McCain has now spent tens of millions of dollars on the state -- money that didn't go into Florida, or North Carolina, or Indiana, or Virginia, where Obama has had the advertising edge, and where the McCain campaign is now on its heels. Those are also resources that didn't go into Michigan, where McCain has withdrawn from.

So, yes, you can beat a state into submission if you really want to -- I mean, if Obama decided he really wanted to win South Dakota, he could probably do so. But whether it's been a good use of resources, we will have to see.

In certain ways, this is starting to remind one a lot of the Herschel Walker trade. And Obama campaign is not exactly unready, leading McCain in field offices in Minnesota 28 to 9.

This got me thinking: What would I do if I were running short of money and were down in the polls against an opponent with a superior operation in every location where I face him? I'd take advantage of technical advances in media buying to perform saturation attacks on random fronts. I'd reallocate my resources on the fly: What's hitting them this week in Minnesota can hit them next week in Florida and the week after in South Carolina or Ohio. Presumably the impressions I create this week will linger a while; I don't have to reinforce them continuously, as long as I get back and reinforce them at some point.

I'd also hope that in taking that kind of a strategy, I'd be able to distract the strategic brain long enough that I'd have a chance to get them off balance: Get inside their OODA loop, so to speak.

Arguably, Schmidt had the Obama camp on their heels after the Palin nomination because they got inside their loop. So it might work again. But in trying to rattle them, he's trying to rattle one of the most well-run campaign organizations that political actors can remember seeing. This is an organization that has functioned and functioned well on a fifty-state front. It's the first time since before Nixon that anyone has tried a fift-state strategy.

That we owe not to Obama, though, but to Howard Dean. I wonder if history will remember him for it. I also wonder if he'll care.

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