The Obama campaign could
have poured all that money into paid media, and indeed it did run an
extensive media campaign, but the real star of the campaign was its
ground game. The campaign used the
intensive field organizing it employed to such effect in the
primaries. In a June 9, 2008 e-mail, Obama for America
deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand wrote, "...I am proud to
announce that our presidential campaign will be the first
in a generation to deploy and maintain staff in every
single state." By Oct. 24, 2008 Mark Silva
of the Chicago Tribune
reported that the
Obama campaign had 770 field offices around the country. These
Campaign for Change offices focused on voter registration, a task which
the Democrats had outsourced to a considerable degree in the 2004
a conference call on Oct. 24, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said
the campaign knew it was "going to have to win a bunch of battleground
states by a narrow margin." The campaign's strong ground game put
states such as Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina into play.
it could not win all of these states, the McCain campaign had to pay
attention to them. In the closing weeks the McCain campaign found
itself focusing major attention on the less than ideal state of
Pennsylvania, where Democrats had a registration advantage of more than
1.2 million, and where, of 712,925 approved new voter applications
processed since January 2008, 427,479 registered as Democrats compared
to 144,118 registered as Republicans.
Compounding the Republican ticket's difficulties, the playing field shifted markedly in September 2008. The center of discussion, which had been the war in Iraq during the early primaries, then energy as gas prices soared, turned to the financial crisis. McCain himself had conceded that his strength was in defense and foreign policy, not economics. Additionally McCain's announcement on Sept. 24 that he would suspend his campaign came across to many observers as a political stunt.
McCain's selection of Gov. Palin also prompted considerable questioning, particularly given his age. The pick provided a much-needed shot of adrenaline to the campaign and energized the base, but ultimately it did not help with independent voters.
McCain's message also had some weaknesses. His ad
campaign focused heavily on painting a
negative picture of Obama but failed to elaborate on his own
vision and plans. He could present himself as a maverick and call
for change, but Democrats pointed out that he "voted
with Bush and Cheney 90% of the time." Meanwhile Obama, although he too
ran some negative and distorting ads, was most identified with his
message of hope and unity, even if it didn't get into specifics. In mid-October, the McCain
found a decent theme they could use in the closing weeks of the
campaign: Joe the Plumber. On a more narrow point, in the closing
month or so Democrats and allied groups savaged
McCain's health plan, and the Republican campaign did not effectively
respond to those attacks.
Regardless of his views, as a candidate
McCain fell short of Obama in a number of areas. Obama was a
figure out of central casting -- young, attractive and able to give a
rousing speech. Much was written
about the Bradley effect and whether it would cost Obama votes, but
McCain's age probably cost him votes. Although McCain was a genuine hero, it was
Obama who had star quality and was seen as a transformational
figure. Obama seemed calm and
unflappable, while questions had long been raised about McCain's
In 2004, the electorate was highly polarized; people were for President Bush or they were against him. 2008 had a different dynamic. While there remained anti-Bush sentiment, in comparison to Kerry, Obama inspired more voters to actually vote for him rather than just vote against Bush.
Finally, quite a few
conservatives point to unfair coverage from the media as a factor in
this race. The problem wasn't just with the
New York Times, a
favorite target for conservative criticism.
A Center for Media and Public Affairs content analysis
of 979 election news stories on the ABC, CBC, NBC and FOX evening
newscasts, released on Oct. 30 >,
found that, "On the broadcast network newscasts, evaluations of Barack
Obama and Joe Biden have been over twice as favorable as evaluations of
John McCain and Sarah Palin– 65% positive versus 35% negative for the
Democratic ticket compared to 31% positive verus 69% negative
evaluations of the Republican ticket." An
Oct. 22 study >
by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found
that "coverage of McCain has been heavily unfavorable--and has become
more so over time." The
Howell acknowledged "An Obama Tilt in Campaign Coverage" at her paper (Nov. 9). On
the other side of the
equation, it must be acknowledged that conservative talk radio
hammered away at the Democratic nominee daily.
|June||July||Aug.||Sept.||Oct./Nov.|| By State
| Sen. John McCain
| Gov. Sarah
|Todd Palin x|
| Sen. Barack Obama
| Sen. Joe Biden
| Michelle Obama
|Rationale, Methodology and Limitations||Ralph Nader|
|Selected states in detail: CO | FL
More states: CA | NH | NJ | NY | TX | WA
Persuadable Voters and Base Voters
Once a campaign has decided it will contest a particular state, it does not blindly throw resources in. A conventional rule of thumb in presidential elections is that about 40 percent of those who turn out will vote for the Republican candidate no matter what and another 40 percent will vote for the Democrat no matter what. Thus much energy and resources are devoted to trying to reach the remaining 20 percent of the electorate--persuadable swing voters--with the right message. Micro-targeting techniques allow this to be done with increasing precision.
Campaign stops are scheduled in media markets with high concentrations of persuadable voters. People in these areas can expect to see a lot of political ads. Direct mail pieces go out to swing voters. The message is carefully tailored to attract persuadables or allay their concerns. To attract persuadables, the major party nominees generally move toward the middle, toning down more extreme elements of their messages that they had used to appeal to party activists during the primaries.
As Election Day approaches campaign redouble their efforts to mobilize supporters. Phone-banking and precinct-walking are staples of get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts.
|For a campaign, the electorate can be divided into three groups: those who are for the candidate, those who are "agin" him and the undecided. In the fall, much of the campaign's resources are directed to this third group. Then, in the closing weeks, the campaign makes a substantial effort to mobilize its base supporters.|
The fall campaigns of the major party candidates have since the 1970s been financed by direct grants from the Federal Election Campaign Fund, which in turn is financed by the $3 check-off on individual income tax returns. The campaigns must agree to abide by a spending limit, although they can raise funds for legal and accounting expenses. The candidates officially become party nominees at their conventions. In June 2008, as noted above, the Obama campaign announced it would forgo federal funds. On September 8 the FEC certified the McCain/Palin campaign to receive $84.1 million (this is the $20 million figure provided for in the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act adjusted for inflation). However, the campaigns are not the only players on the field. The national parties are allowed to spend a fixed amount advocating the election of their nominees; the limit for coordinated party expenditures in 2008 was $19.1 million. The parties are also free to make independent expenditures supportive of their nominees. In 2004 Section 527 groups such as America Coming Together and The Media Fund on the Democratic side and Progress for America and Swift Boat Vets and POWs for Truth on the Republican side raised and spent significant sums of money. Such groups were active in 2008 but did not have nearly as significant an impact.
The Obama field organization will be held up as a model for years to come. The fact that Obama was engaged in a competitive primary through until June, while it carried the risk of dividing the party, allowed the Obama campaign to hone its field organization and maintain continuity between the primaries and the general election, rather than having to start afresh. On a technical note, the field organization on the ground in a given state is typically carried out by a coordinated campaign or Victory campaign which is funded by the state party and the national party and seeks to elect party officials up and down the ticket. In June, when he became the presumptive nominee, Obama directed that the Democratic National Committee would not accept contributions from political action committees or federal lobbyists. As a result in a few states there was an Obama/Campaign for Change set of offices and a separate set of offices for the coordinated campaign.
Most of the money given to the campaigns goes into television advertising. Generally in the summer, the campaign will have put together an ad team which includes both political and Madison Avenue talent. Based on polling data, the themes the campaign wants to stress will have been identified. The ad team generates ideas to convey those themes, and produces spots which are then tested in focus groups, and, hopefully, approved by the campaign management. However, the work does not stop with an ad "in the can" and approved; careful planning is required to ensure that the ads are seen by the target audience. The demographic watching "60 Minutes" differs markedly from that watching "Oprah." It is left to media planners, juggling GRPs and dayparts, to put together ad buys. Perhaps the most memorable McCain ads were the "celebrity" theme ads it released starting at the end of July. Of note among the Obama ads was the half-hour broadcast the campaign ran on the evening of Oct. 29 on most of the networks.
Of course television is
the only paid medium available to the campaigns. Radio is an
way to reach some audiences, for example during drive-time.
of its lower profile radio is sometimes used to deliver negative
Persuasion mail and phone calls also conveyed the
negative messages. Both campaigns ran numerous Internet ads (Obama
Magazine and newspaper
advertising can be very effective, but the campaigns made little
use of these media.
|Copyright © 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action||