When I was a teenager, my friends and I enjoyed playing the board game Risk. For those of you unfamiliar with it, Risk is a war game in which the Earth is divided by the continents and each continent is divided into different regions. Using a complex set of rules, each player builds armies and engages in battles in an attempt to take over the world. It was often a very time-consuming game. My friends and I developed, or rather discovered, a three-stage strategy for achieving victory. Step 1, establish and secure your own region of power. Ideally, this would be several regions making up a continent that had few borders and thus limited the ability of your opponents to attack you there. Step 2, engage with and defeat the other players in neutral territory. Step 3, (assuming step 2 went in your favor) invade and conquer the opponent’s region of power.
Presidential politics, while not global in scope or played on a board with dice, follows a similar three-stage pattern. Step 1, secure your base (or in politics, your party). Step 2, win over the undecided voters. Step 3, go after your opponent’s base. In American Presidential politics, with its electoral college, this can also be looked at through the lens or winning and securing individual states.
As the summer and the campaign wear on, President Trump’s and Joe Biden’s advertising strategies are revealing the two candidates to be at different stages of this three-stage strategy.
We’ll start with Joe Biden. By virtue of his victory in the Democratic Primary, he has successfully completed stage one. This was not a foregone conclusion, though. There was some question about whether or not the supporters of Bernie Sanders would rally to his flag. However, Biden has adopted enough of their issues and kissed enough feet that it no longer appears to be an issue.
While there had been a lull in action in late spring and early summer, things are heating up now and Biden appears to be moving onto stage two by venturing into neutral territory with television ad buys. In this case, neutral territory consists of traditional swing states and the states that Trump narrowly won over Clinton in 2016. The Biden campaign has committed to spending millions on ads with the focus of this attention going to Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Team Trump, on the other hand, seems to have stalled in stage one, securing his base. Without a true primary, like the Democrats had, Trump never really had a chance to rally his base to his cause like Biden did. However, as the Republican Party’s incumbent, he shouldn’t have had to. But with national circumstances being what they are, and with groups like The Lincoln Project out there, Trump still needs to complete this all-important first step. This can be seen in his advertising strategy thus far. Trump’s spending (taking the form of digital ads as opposed to television ads at this point) has been focused in states like Georgia, North Carolina, and Ohio. These states, in theory, should be firmly in his camp by now. This is particularly true of Georgia.
The more time and money that Trump spends on stage one, the less time and money he will have available for stage two. The states where Biden is currently active (Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) will become harder and harder for Trump to win the longer they go uncontested.
When looking at the overall campaign from this perspective, things look pretty grim for Team Trump. So, is there a way for him to reverse this? The answer is yes, there are several options available to him.
First, he can win the individual battles. In the game of Risk, a good overall strategy could fall to pieces if the individual battles don’t go well, if the dice rolls consistently came up short. Similarly, in politics, simply spending money in the right places isn’t going to be enough. It needs to be spent wisely. The commercials need to be well made and carry the right message. Thus far, Biden’s team has been attacking Trump on the Coronavirus and race relations. He has done this consistently and kept up a rate of fire to make it effective. As a result, many Americans have come to believe that the President has grossly mishandled the Coronavirus response and that the current race problems we see are his fault. It doesn’t matter that the majority of deaths from the virus happened in Democrat controlled states and are directly related to the decisions of those Democrat leaders. It doesn’t matter that the violent protests we’re seeing are taking place in Democrat controlled cities and are directly related to the poor decisions and misplaced priorities of those Democrat Mayors. In these cases, the Democrat leaders were put to the test and they failed about as badly as a feral hog taking the SAT’s with a broken pencil. But Trump is taking the blame because of a well-executed battle plan by team Biden.
Trump, however, has been somewhat less focused. His ad strategy has covered a wide range of issues such as attacking Biden’s mental fitness, attacking Biden as a puppet of the far left, and Biden not being able or willing to keep American’s safe, just to name a few. While none of these are necessarily bad messages in and of themselves, the President’s team would do well to pick one or two of these and focus on them like a laser beam. It is difficult to have a message stick with voters over time or when they’re challenged if that message lacks consistency and isn’t continually reinforced. An excellent strategy at this point would be for the President to proclaim that he’s the one who will keep America safe and put people back to work. It is something that everyone can relate to and something that he can turn to over and over again. Regardless of the issue being discussed, he can always return to keeping Americans safe and putting them back to work. A million and one commercials can be made with this theme and can fit whatever medium they need to. Most importantly, it’s a message that can resonate regardless of what stage his campaign is in.
Second, the President can reverse the circumstances that have left him mired in stage one by attacking from a different angle. So far, I’ve discussed only paid advertising. This method of battle has not been going well for team Trump, so he should switch the focus of the method of battle. If laying siege to a city and trying to starve the enemy out isn’t working, then get the battering ram and beat down the gate. If that doesn’t work, get ladders and storm the walls. If that doesn’t work, then dig under the walls.
In politics, candidates do not have to rely entirely on paid advertising. In Trump’s case, there is another avenue; the stump speech. This was probably his most effective tool in 2016. Admittedly, the Coronavirus makes that a bit more difficult this time around but it need not make it impossible. Some creative thinking can help him regain some of that thunder from last time. A good example was the Tulsa, OK rally. This rally had considerably less in attendance than the President’s team would have liked. But, the numbers of those who watched it online and on Television was record setting.
Perhaps holding virtual rallies and virtual townhalls would work for him in this case. Sure, these wouldn’t have quite the same energy as one of his speeches in front of packed out arenas. But it could be more effective in other ways. He could hold a weekly virtual rally and pick a topic to speak on for that week in particular. Then, he could have a dozen guests personally affected by the issue attend this “rally” while he gives his speech to the camera. Let’s say he speaks on economic recovery one week while having a dozen guests in attendance who recently lost their job. Then the next week he could speak about inner city violence with a dozen guests who had their businesses destroyed in the riots in attendance. The next week he could talk about illegal immigration while having a dozen immigrants who came here legally in attendance. As election day draws nearer, he could increase the frequency of these virtual rallies. Such a strategy could, if done right, work toward the accomplishment of steps one and two at the same time. Additionally, if this strategy started to have an effect, it would force Joe Biden to start holding similar rallies. This, in turn, would help the President even more since this is one of Biden’s areas of weakness.
Additionally, the traditional Presidential debates are still in the future. These, like stump speeches, would probably benefit the President much more than they would Biden. It’s for this reason that Biden will try to get out of them. Trump must not let this happen. He can offer anything under the sun to make these debates a reality. He can agree to no audience. He can agree to both candidates knowing the questions in advance. He can even agree to Biden picking the moderator if it came to that. He would still have a huge advantage and score huge points against Biden even if all of these things are agreed to. Like I said, this type of event would be Biden’s biggest weakness. He hasn’t really been in a debate of this type since his lone showdown with Paul Ryan in 2012. The primary debates don’t count as there were several candidates present and Biden could (and did) get lost in the crowd.
Unlike the game of Risk, in Presidential politics one does not need to successfully finish all three stages to win. Completing stages one and two are sufficient with stage three being a bonus. It will be the job of Bill Stepien, Trump’s newly minted Campaign manager, to figure out how to get this done. In his first public statement since taking his new role, he said, “If we win more days than Joe Biden wins, President Trump will be reelected.” And he’s right. Neither candidate is going to land a knockout punch this year (although the debates have that potential). This will likely be a war of attrition and the losing campaign will be the one that died the death of a thousand cuts.