Sun Tzu’s manual has shaped the strategic thinking of leaders for centuries, highlighting the blend of calculation and intuition required for achieving victory on the battlefield.
Similarly, politics is often said to be more of an art than a science — victory depends not only on detailed planning, but also on our ability to adapt to an unpredictable landscape.
Voter sentiment can change rapidly, and external factors frequently determine the outcome more than we’d like to admit. Given these similarities, Sun Tzu’s timeless wisdom from The Art of War remains a guidepost for strategic success in modern campaigns.
In politics, planning, strategy development, troop management, adaptability, and the proper handling of crises like scandals are all essential parts of a successful campaign. These components align well with Sun Tzu’s teachings, providing a framework for strategic success in modern campaigns.
“The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.”
The principle captured in Sun Tzu’s statement is not confined to warfare. It also holds weight across a variety of fields. Setting clear goals and breaking them down into actionable benchmarks is a well-recognized principle in the private sector, in part, because it enables the team to allocate human and financial resources effectively, while also providing a roadmap to guide actions and measure progress.
Every action in your campaign should directly help you reach your main goal. Winning the election, making the other side spend money, pushing for a cause you care about, building name recognition for a future run, or strengthening your local party are all valid reasons to run a race — but only if you can accomplish them. Make sure what you’re doing day-to-day lines up with why you decided to run in the first place. As Sun Tzu says, winning requires making many calculations before the battle is fought.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”
No candidate has identical goals, and accordingly, no universal strategy can be applied to achieve them. Every district has its own characteristics, and each opponent presents specific challenges. Utilizing data analytics, district reports, and opposition research allows for a more tailored approach that considers these variables.
A well-calculated strategy that’s informed by data and tailored to local conditions doesn’t just improve your odds—it’s often the difference between winning and losing. By taking the time to understand both your own campaign’s strengths and weaknesses as well as those of your opponent, you place yourself in a strong position to adapt and succeed.
“The energy developed by good fighting men is as the momentum of a round stone rolled down a mountain thousands of feet in height.”
To build a winning campaign, it’s not enough to merely have a solid plan — you need the right team and organization to carry it out. Think of your campaign structure as the vehicle for turning grassroots enthusiasm into a strategic victory. When your team aligns with your goals, they generate the kind of energy that Sun Tzu describes, as unstoppable as a stone rolling down a mountain.
Sun Tzu likens building your team to the bending of a crossbow — using them in the field to the releasing of a trigger. Whether allocating resources, mobilizing volunteers, or responding to a crisis, your campaign should act as a well-calibrated machine that turns raw support into measurable outcomes. This allows you to not just build momentum, but sustain it, effectively transforming the collective energy of your team into a force capable of achieving your campaign’s objectives.
“He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.”
A campaign plan should never be set in stone. While it’s essential to have a well-defined strategy, political landscapes can change quickly. Whether it’s a sudden shift in voter sentiment revealed by new polling or an unexpected national event that energizes the electorate, adaptability is crucial. Just be careful that adaptability doesn’t come at the cost of abandoning your goals and core strategy.
There’s often insufficient time to completely reassess your plan or reposition your team. For example, if new polling data reveals a neighborhood has become competitive, taking the time to build a full-scale operation might mean missing the window of opportunity. Conversely, a rushed response could overextend your resources, jeopardizing other campaign elements.
The solution lies in proactive planning. Leave room in your strategic plan for rapid adjustments. This enables your campaign to adapt without sacrificing the foundational strategy or support systems, keeping you nimble yet focused on your ultimate goals. For example, if your opponent makes a significant mistake or controversial statement, having a team in reserve allows you to immediately engage in rapid response activities.
“Rapidity is the essence of war: take advantage of the enemy’s unreadiness, make your way by unexpected routes, and attack unguarded spots.”
Election Day serves as a hard deadline in every campaign, and you must achieve your objectives before then. The built-in time constraint makes rapid decision-making and execution essential. Economy of action becomes a pivotal factor: every move must be calculated to yield the highest return on investment.
Strategic positioning is at the core of every tactical decision. It entails more than just making smart moves — it involves countering your opponent’s maneuvers effectively to maintain or gain advantage.
Whether that’s reallocating campaign resources to capitalize on shifting demographics or quickly addressing a legislative issue that resonates with the electorate, your aim is to consistently out-position your opponent in a race against time. By applying Sun Tzu’s focus on speed and positioning, your campaign gains the agility needed to outmaneuver opponents and seize opportunities.
The final chapters of Sun Tzu’s 5th century BC text delve into less commonly discussed, but equally significant elements of strategy, such as managing scandals and gathering intelligence. While these aspects may seem distasteful to some, their presence in modern campaigns is undeniable.
Understanding these elements, whether you choose to employ them or not, equips you to counter similar tactics from your opponent, allowing you to navigate complex situations with integrity and foresight.
“Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.”
In the context of modern campaigns, this ancient wisdom emphasizes the importance of deliberate action, particularly in areas that tread ethical boundaries, such as managing scandals or intelligence gathering. The benefit must clearly outweigh the risk, and you must be prepared for the potential ramifications. In these sensitive areas, Sun Tzu’s principle serves as a reminder: act only when the advantage is clear and the position critical.
Failure to heed this can turn these powerful tools into liabilities, making you vulnerable rather than strong. Therefore, it’s essential to weigh the benefits and risks carefully, ensuring that you’re not only prepared to take the initiative, but also to defend against similar tactics from the opposition.
In conclusion, the wisdom imparted by Sun Tzu in The Art of War extends far beyond ancient battlefields, offering invaluable insights into the strategic complexities of modern political campaigns. From meticulous planning and data-driven decision-making to adaptability and crisis management, each element contributes to a campaign’s overarching strategy.
Caitlin Huxley is a certified project manager and has managed campaigns since 2010. She is the author of Ancient Wisdom for Modern Campaigns: Lessons from Sun Tzu’s Art of War.