Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Thompson Breaking "the Rules"

Jay Cost at RCP has an interesting take on the Thompson campaign and speculates a bit on Fred's strategy. In a two part article, Cost lays out what he believes is the Thompson campaign strategy, and its strengths and weaknesses. Much of the issue that many pundits have with Fred is that he is more or less ignoring the conventional wisdom on how to conduct his campaign.

"I think that the confusion over the Thompson campaign is that what works about it is very similar to what does not work. So, at first inspection, the lines are blurry - and you can't quite tell if this campaign is genius or disastrous. Upon closer inspection, I think that there are some lines to distinguish - and we can make some sense about this very peculiar presidential campaign."

Cost divides the campaign into two sectors, which he calls the "perpetual" campaign, where the chattering classes, pundits and beltway insiders set the tone and the agenda, and the "real" campaign, where the voters make their decisions. Ths issue is that these insiders believe the perpetual campaign is more important than the real one, whereas it is only a means to get noticed and a spot at the table for when the real deciding is done by the voters.

The issue with the chattering classes (media) have with Thompson is that he isn't playing their game the way they think he ought to - he's ignoring their rules, and running the way he wants to instead.

"In the perpetual campaign - you are supposed to campaign non-stop. You are supposed to remember all of the minutiae of your campaign schedule. You are supposed to know the details of symbolic events that happened over a year ago. You are supposed to know the specifics of local political issues so you can pander to the residents. Those are the rules. Thompson isn't following them."

However, Fred remains a viable candidate - despite what the pundits think. This is possible, in Jay's view because the pundit's rules aren't real rules, but imaginary ones, and that Thompson might just be the kind of trailblazer to challenge these preconcieved notions. It benefits him in two ways.

"First, breaking the rules has earned him notice. This is ironic, as most candidates follow the rules of the perpetual campaign for precisely this reason. They do a lot of stump speeches to get on the evening news. They do the Sunday morning show circuit. They take any opportunity to appear on Hardball that they can get. And so on. But not Thompson. So, is the media ignoring him? Hardly! Instead, his rule breaking has earned him more attention. My favorite example of this so far was Thompson's declaration of his candidacy. The fact that he announced his candidacy on Jay Leno was taken as rule breaking. But consider the net result. Thompson announced on Leno - and got the Leno audience. And then the next day, all the talking heads did was talk about Thompson! Far from being punished, Thompson was rewarded for his defiance.

But much more importantl, I think Thompson has assessed that breaking these rules could win him support. People outside the Beltway, whose daily lives are not regimented by the news cycle, appreciate that the perpetual campaign has reached a point of asininity. Accordingly, a candidate could win supporters over in the real campaign by claiming that he ignored all of these rules, which essentially mandate twenty-two months of nonstop campaigning. This is a twist on running against Washington. It is running against the Washington press corps."

Cost goes on further to say that this appears to be a calculated risk that Thompson is willing to take, particulary running as a Republican, whose base is often suspicious of the media elite anyway. However, he points out that in order to break the rules, you have to be nearly perfect - and some of Fred's appearances haven't been terribly exciting, at least to many observers. If you combine the rule breaking with mistakes, you just might alienate many of those whose support you are seeking, but Cost also states that the campaign is still in its very early stages, that Fred appears to be gaining some traction and momentum, and that the jury is still out.

Nice analysis, and I have to agree with almost all of it.

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