The conduct of [a campaign] resembles the workings of an intricate machine with tremendous friction, so that combinations which are easily planned on paper can be executed only with great effort. Consequently the commander’s free will and intelligence find themselves hampered at every turn, and remarkable strength of mind and spirit are needed to overcome this resistance. Even then many good ideas are destroyed by friction, and we must carry out more simply and modestly what in more complicated form would have given greater results.
… In action our physical images and perceptions are more vivid than the impressions we gained beforehand by mature reflection. But they are only the outward appearances of things, which, as we know, rarely match their essence precisely. We therefore run the risk of sacrificing mature reflection to first impressions.
— Clausewitz, On War
In election campaigns, friction is a daily reality. It central the mysterious “momentum” that pundits constantly refer to when they write about post-convention bounces or post-debate slumps.
Friction in a campaign sense is both physical forces — bad weather that keeps people away from the polls or deters volunteers from knocking on doors; or resource limitations such as money, ability to produce leaflets, direct mail or campaign t-shirts — and also psychological. The psychological elements are as important as the physical. As Clausewitz notes in the second part of the quote above, the way we perceive the physical reality is even more vivid than the reality.
This is why the melt-down by liberal MSNBC shock-jock Chris Matthews (in the Youtube clip at the top of this post) has a strong effect. It has a psychologically inhibiting effect on supporters of President Obama. This in turn substantially increases the “friction” of Obama’s campaign.
Even if the campaign is physically running smoothly — doors are being knocked, money is pouring in, voters are being registered in record numbers — the constraint on confidence caused by friction can jam the “intricate machine” of the campaign just as surely as the money actually drying up, voters not being registered or doors remaining unknocked.
This is why momentum is important.
Without the campaign creating momentum forward, to complete its objectives (i.e. the election of Obama), the campaign would grind to a halt through inevitable friction. Set pieces like the Democratic National Convention, stump speeches and rallies (by Obama and his surrogates), as well as community training events are all designed to counter that psychological friction.
After the first Presidential debate, the sense from many pundits was that Romney had won, but that it was hardly disastrous for Obama. Over the next few days however, an increasingly number of people started to succumb to the effects of friction — which was self reinforcing. The campaign slowed, increasing the friction felt by volunteers and staff, thus further increasing friction.
The Vice Presidential debate, and Biden’s performance was obviously designed to ease the pressure on the campaign, build morale and try to rebuild momentum for the Obama campaign.
(It’s worth noting of course the the 47% video was a major source of friction for Romney’s campaign, and the debate helped restart momentum for his campaign and boost the morale of Republicans. From Clausewitz’s perspective, positive fortune for one side is more properly represented as friction for the opposition.)
The reason that friction is important it keep in mind when thinking about election campaigns is that modern campaigns are not just events that occur on the printed page of newspapers or on television screens. Despite all the technology, strategy and campaign tactics, success in an election is not simply assured by following the “correct” techniques.
Friction may seem obvious, but the campaign that can best exploit the friction felt by the opposition, and effectively use the resources and power at its disposal will more likely be successful.