Niche-filling is more than conventional alliance or coalition building: it’s a means of undercutting an incumbent at the most elemental level in a community. The aim is to counter and neutralize the efficacy of an incumbent’s paid media (his big firepower). Key voters who are educated and persuaded ahead of an incumbent’s post-Labor Day big paid media blitzes are more likely to receive that paid media skeptically, if not with outright disbelief. Challengers need to organize advocates in niches who can work against an incumbent’s paid messaging once it begins. Earned (unpaid), alternative, and informal community media need to be thoroughly utilized to undercut an incumbent’s messaging.
Republican challengers should take heart from this assessment made recently by unnamed sources in a New York Times article:
Democrats worry that some lawmakers who have avoided tough races in the past could be at added risk of defeat because they are out of practice, slow on their feet and often reluctant to acknowledge the threat they are facing.
Smug, tuned-out incumbents are bonuses for challengers. A successful challenger campaign is about speed and maneuver, under any circumstance, but when an incumbent is little more than a squatting oaf, it’s a no-brainer. The critical word is “outflank.” Get around and behind an incumbent and press hard. Hammer on issues that resonant with voters and exploit the incumbent’s vulnerabilities.
While incumbents count their money, challengers need to scour communities for new contributors, big or small. Just one dollar given to a campaign by a voter is a commitment. A lot of dollar contributions are lots of commitments.
Another of Giap’s precepts was that wars are won by changing and commanding perceptions. While the communist Vietnamese never won key battles against the United States, Giap’s aim wasn’t always battlefield victories. His aim, in large part, was to impress upon stateside Americans that their perceptions of U.S. military dominance in Vietnam were false. The Tet Offensive was Giap’s tool for upsetting and changing American perceptions.
The Tet Offensive was, of course, a decisive military victory for the United States and the South Vietnamese, but it was a propaganda coup for the communists: the perception of American invincibility had been mortally wounded.
In campaign politics, an opportunity — a la Tet — to dramatically change voters’ perceptions of an incumbent’s invincibility is remote. Rare is the silver bullet in the perceptions game. Instead, finding many ways — often small — to demonstrate audacity and to publicize an incumbent’s contradictions and failures is what is needed. Changing voters’ perceptions cumulatively until reaching a critical mass is the goal.
Successful warfare for underdogs is a multi-dimensional affair and global in nature, as Giap emphasized. It’s what Giap referred to as the “synthesized concept.” Challengers shouldn’t spread their campaigns too thinly, but neither can their campaigns be one-trick ponies. It’s critical to engage enough issues and voters’ interests to gain one more vote than an incumbent obtains (more than that, given recounts).
Beyond the communist claptrap, Giap recognized that the Vietnamese who sided with the communists weren’t fighting for a workers’ paradise and international brotherhood. Pro-communist Vietnamese — peasants who did the bulk of the fighting and dying — did so to achieve national independence. Vietnam had a long history of invasion and occupation. Most Hanoi-supporting Vietnamese had a simple but powerful motivation: freedom from foreign domination.
Voters, like fighters, need to be for something or someone.
Though successful challenges are mostly about making elections referendums on incumbents, voters still need reasons to be for challengers. Giving voters compelling reasons to cast ballots for challengers is an important part of the mix.
As Giap might concede, there are no guarantees of victory, despite the best efforts by challengers. But by demonstrating the will to win, planning shrewdly, executing effectively, and adapting swiftly to changing circumstances, challengers can increase the chances of victory — in war and politics.