Conventions According to Sun Tzu>

How to win on the convention floor . . . before the delegation has been credentialed.


 While Sun Tzu’s literary opus The Art of War is focused on military conflict, much of what he wrote applies equally well to other types of human  conflict  (occasionally using the term “conflict” rather loosely).  Sun Tzu’s admonition, that a skilled commander will win the battle before the opposing  armies  ever meet, makes just as much sense in the boardroom or the sports arena as it does on the battlefield.  Likewise, a skilled candidate or  campaign whip  will know how the vote is going to break before the convention is called to order (or the polls open, as the case may be).  Populist  insurgency  candidates, if they actually want to win, would be wise to learn the strategies and tactics of the professional political establishment, and    learn how to  accomplish victory . . . before the delegation (or electorate) is ever credentialed.


One of my professional mentors taught me that, in any matter coming to a vote (regardless of whether the voting assembly is a committee, a legislature, a convention, or the general electorate), those who have an interest in the outcome are well advised if they know in advance how the votes are going to shake out, within a margin-of-error of no more than five percent (ε ≤ ±5%) of those who’ll be voting.  This is why candidates in a public election will invest in a reliable internal polling contractor, and why business executives will make and take shareholder phone calls at odd hours, and why legislative caucuses have a formal whip team.


This need to accurately predict vote preferences is also why convention candidates will invest money, time, and interpersonal “relationship capital” in building district-wide networks.  Each of these networks will operate essentially autonomously within their district, but will periodically check in with the campaign’s chief whip (a key staffer whose job is to coordinate the district data into a statewide data picture).  Most might think of this scenario as the five weeks or so during the run-up to a state party convention itself, during which intervening time the county party conventions and perhaps the statewide party primary elections might take place.  The truth is that these whip networks are built much earlier, and both delegate surveys and whip calls are started as soon as the campaign’s infrastructure will permit.


Something that we need to note here is that the professional political establishment typically starts their convention preparation a year in advance (ditto for primary elections).  This means that, in my home state, the establishment’s prep work for August has already been underway for at least the past two or three months, if not longer.  For the grassroots activists and populist candidates desiring to defeat the establishment at the next convention, a few key points must be kept in mind:

The professional political establishment, regardless of what we grassroots types might say about them, run primaries and conventions like a business operation.  They’ve been doing this for generations, they’re networked statewide, and the key players know their roles.  Grassroots activists, on the other hand, often aren’t even reliably networked within their own county or district, let alone statewide (meaning that populist candidates often find themselves having to assemble a whip network, from scratch, every convention cycle).  In order to consistently win, grassroots organizations must develop the habits of cultivating and developing credible leaders, ensuring those leaders network with each other, and following up by actively recruiting and training the next generation of movement leadership.


The professional political establishment has invested considerable time, money, and manpower into building a reliable master database of potential convention delegates, which they update regularly, and share as necessary within their network (reasonably compensating those who compile and maintain the database).  In contrast, the grassroots activists who have similar convention databases are notorious for “going underground” with that information, sharing it with no one outside their inner circle, and recoiling at the mere suggestion of databases being a marketable commodity.  (There are exceptions to this trend, of course, but not many.)  Realistically, if grassroots activists are serious about winning conventions, then they’re going to have to adjust to the concept of sharing at least basic database information, as well as to paying a reasonable price to people who can build and maintain a verifiably reliable database of potential convention delegates.

One reason for having a reliable independent database of potential convention delegates, and having that database in hand as early in the campaign as possible, is to identify any “gaps” in the delegation pool.  State convention delegations are selected from county conventions, and the county conventions are populated by the partisan primary election winners (from federal and state offices all the way down to precinct delegates).  Knowing where the current vacancies are, in a county or district, will provide the campaign’s whip team with a list of neighborhoods and municipalities from which potential delegates can be recruited, or into which potential delegates can be temporarily relocated (using the “crash pad and carpetbag” strategy).

Another reason to have such a database in hand, as early as possible, is to provide the candidate’s campaign team with a way to engage potential convention delegates early and often, through mailers, e-mails, and event invitations.  Eventually, these contacts must become vote prediction tallies, coordinated statewide.  (Using a predictive live vote tracking tool, such as Scale Campaign’s “Whip the Floor” platform, is highly recommended.)  Savvy campaign managers will use these vote count tallies to steer support toward those primary candidates who indicate a preference for the convention candidate they’re managing.

Preliminary whip counts are accomplished by using either person-to-person contact or through surveys (polling).  Friendly influencers, who also are difficult to deceive and have a knack for cat herding, make for excellent district and county whips.  Well-constructed polling allows for the collection of responses in bulk, and tracking opinion shifts over time, typically in three week 

increments.  The goal of this “nose counting” is to develop an accurate tally of how the delegation is going to vote, allowing for a combined unknown/undecided bloc of no larger than 15% (θ ≤ 15%) by the time that the delegation has been credentialed.

And this is where some grassroots activists wind up working against themselves.  Out of a questionable concern that they may be denied credentials if they honestly respond to surveys (because the establishment insiders don’t want to lose on the convention floor), they instead raise an even bigger “red flag” by persistently refusing to respond to those surveys (or responding in a way that indicates that they may be responding dishonestly).  Consider that, with an understood goal of θ ≤ 15% in the credentialed delegation, the establishment would prefer to “box out” prospective delegates who are unresponsive, or dishonestly responsive, and tolerate the presence of known opponents.  Populist candidates and grassroots activists, if they’re serious about winning on the convention floor, would do well to understand this reasoning.

Consider this paraphrase of Sun Tzu:

“Every convention is won before it’s called to order.  The good candidates first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then wait for the opportunity to defeat their opponents.  Thus it is that in campaigns the victorious strategist only engages after the victory is won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first engages and afterwards looks for victory.”

Building a statewide whip network (that is actually coordinating its information), purchasing or constructing a reliable master database of potential delegates, recruiting potential delegates and engaging them early and often, and maintaining a running whip count so as to avoid “flying blind” on the convention floor . . . this is what successful convention candidates do, and the consistently successful ones have refined this to an art form.  The professional political establishment already understands this . . . grassroots activists and populist candidates need to figure it out.

5 Dec 2017