In any competition against actual human beings, winning is seldom about utterly destroying your opponent. Granted, utterly destroying your opponent almost always will grant you the win. But it’s seldom necessary. Rather, the necessary condition for victory is destroying your opponent’s will to fight. Once your opponent stops fighting, it’s done. Sure, there’s often a bit of cleanup left. But once the enemy breaks it’s over.
Toward that end, elite players in all kinds of competitions – from chess to sports to war to politics – make heavy use of head games. Getting inside your opponent’s head – and keeping him out of yours – is crucial to competition. It is not sufficient, but it is absolutely essential in every respect.
First, maintaining your own confidence is important. If you do not have confidence in your own ability to win, you will not act decisively. Lack of decisive action is deadly. So you must maintain confidence. On the flip side, you will work to destroy your enemy’s confidence. One aspect of this is projecting your own confidence outward. If you do not appear confident to your enemy, it will embolden him. Conversely, an external appearance of supreme confidence can often cause your competitor to doubt his own.
For the most part this is not a rational process. The heavy part of it is instinctive. With that said, elite level competitors of all kinds know the game and exercise conscious techniques to honestly maintain their own confidence, project a higher confidence than they feel, and defend against attempts by their opponents to undermine their confidence. They will also exercise other techniques deliberately designed to sabotage their opponent’s confidence: deception, misdirection, intimidation.
Often it isn’t even your opponent’s confidence you must destroy. Quite often destroying the confidence of his allies is sufficient. Destroy their confidence and they withdraw their support. Without their support, quite often your opponent honestly cannot win.
For a concrete example we’ll turn to – where else? – the current Presidential election. Yesterday I pointed out that Donald Trump does not need to hit 51% of the popular vote in order to win a majority of delegates and secure the nomination. I covered the delegate math in excruciating detail to hammer home the point.
But the reality is even harsher for his opponents than it seems, because there’s one more key detail that I didn’t cover: funding. Donald Trump doesn’t have to worry about funding. He can self fund his campaign for as long as he needs to. And his spending levels have been so low that he doesn’t even really need to spend all that much on it (measured as a percentage of his actual income and assets).
His opponents, on the other hand, need cash. Lots and lots of cash. They can’t provide it themselves, so they must raise it from donors. And this will be the final nail in their coffins. Trump doesn’t have to destroy the other candidates. All he has to do is destroy their fundraising.
Nearly a dozen candidates have already dropped out of the GOP race. Ultimately their decision to leave came down to funds. Look at John Kasich today. His poll numbers are now actually measurable – not because he suddenly became more popular but solely because he managed to survive long enough to have a smaller field to compete against. Do you honestly think that Christie or Jindal or even Scott Walker wouldn’t have found a similar polling boost if they’d found themselves in Kasich’s survivor shoes? Of course they would have. But they didn’t survive this long because ultimately they ran out of money. Their donors no longer saw them as having a viable path to the nomination and so the money dried up.
By all accounts, Jeb Bush is very close to a similar fate. I hedged yesterday and assumed he’d stay in the game longer. I still think he would if the choice were solely his. His confidence is, at this point, supremely irrational and apparently unflappable. But his donors feel differently, and they appear to be jumping ship. Odds now look extremely good that he’s out after a resounding defeat in South Carolina tomorrow.
Where does this leave yesterday’s analysis? Not much altered, frankly. But there is one extra wrinkle. Today Nate Silver is again insisting on the mathematical fallacy that Trump needs to hit 51% of the electorate to win.
Perhaps the single most important question in the Republican race is how high Trump’s ceiling is and whether he can eventually get to 50+ percent of the GOP electorate.
Here’s his path to 50%, Nate: intimidate the donors until his opponents can’t afford to continue in the race. Gather enough delegates before the winner take all states to ensure that his opponents can’t amass a majority, and then scare away the donors with head games. The candidates would love to take the fight all the way to the convention floor. Their donors will be far more reluctant to bankroll it. Most of them will find themselves far better off making their peace with Trump instead.
By Wednesday, March 2nd – the day after Super Tuesday – this will officially be a three man race. By March 15th we will know for certain if either Cruz or Rubio still has a realistic path to the nomination. My suspicion is that both will be out by the end of March due to donor support drying up.
Look for Trump to continue playing the head games he’s already become famous for. Why? Because they work.