I’m about to do something my friends hate. I’m going to use a football analogy to make a point about politics. People tell me this is over-simplifies things, but in this case, I think it is appropriate.
The football coach and theoretician John T. Reed wrote a book called The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense. The gist of it is that a team’s offense gains an advantage by doing things the opponent doesn’t expect. Reed once said something like “one way is to run a brand new offense. Another way is to run an offense so old that no remembers it or prepares for it.” (I can’t find the exact quote, or I would link to it.)
This is a very basic element of all good strategy throughout history. (Reed is a West Point graduate who served in Vietnam, so he would know more about military strategy than the average person.)
In all strategy, doing what the opponent doesn’t expect is the way to win. So why do people sometimes play into the opponent’s hands by doing what they expect?
As Reed says: some of it is that people do what is fashionable. A certain style of offense comes into favor, and everybody starts copying it.
Another element is group-think. When you have a group of like-minded people, it’s possible no one will be able to think up original or innovative ideas.
How does this relate to the election?
Trump ran a contrarian campaign in almost every respect, and so almost all the professional political strategists couldn’t see what was happening until it was too late.
After the loss in 2012, the Republicans famously created a report to figure out why they lost, and made recommendations for steps to take to win in the future. ABC News summarized it as follows:
The report, called the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” lays out an extensive plan the RNC believes will lead the party to victory with an extensive outreach to women, African-American, Asian, Hispanic and gay voters. Among the plans: hiring paid outreach staffers across the country in a $10 million push that begins right away; backing “comprehensive immigration reform”.
Four years later, the winning Republican campaign did none of that. In fact, it did the exact opposite of most of it.
The conventional wisdom, among both Republicans and Democrats, was that the Republicans couldn’t win just by mobilizing their base of white voters in the Midwest. Trump’s campaign challenged this, and proved it completely wrong. He won by doing precisely that.
They made no secret of what they were trying to do, but because most of the career strategists thought that wouldn’t work, they didn’t take it seriously.