Strategy ’08

Obama vs. the other guy, 2008

Why McCain’s Ad Strategy is Brilliant (and I’m Serious)

Yes, I’m completely serious. McCain’s new ad and campaign strategy is brilliant – evil, of course – but brilliant nonetheless. On the surface they seem juvenile and mock-able, which they are of course, but from a long-term strategy goal for John McCain, this new campaign approach is dangerously effective. No, I’m not being snarky. And you know I’m no concern troll.

My essential thesis is this:

John McCain’s entire series of negative, sophmoric, attack ads are part of a coordinated strategy to firm up the Republican base of support by turning them against Barack Obama. And it’s working.

Remember the first few weeks of the campaign? McCain tried to make a case for himself, but it wasn’t working. He was showing up in front of green screens, nothing was going right for the guy. Then Steve Schmidt and the gang show up and what starts to happen? Attacking Barack Obama all-the-time, non-stop. Almost nothing pro-McCain. As the Times reported today:

After spending much of the summer searching for an effective line of attack against Senator Barack Obama, Senator John McCain is beginning a newly aggressive campaign to define Mr. Obama as arrogant, out of touch and unprepared for the presidency.

On Wednesday alone, the McCain campaign released a new advertisement suggesting — and not in a good way — that Mr. Obama was a celebrity along the lines of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Republicans tried to portray Mr. Obama as a candidate who believed the race was all about him, relying on what Democrats said was a completely inaccurate quotation.

The Republican National Committee began an anti-Obama Web site called “Audacity Watch,” a play on the title of Mr. Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope.” And, in a concerted volley of television interviews, news releases and e-mail, campaign representatives attacked him on a wide range of issues, including tax policies and energy proposals.

The moves are the McCain campaign’s most full-throttled effort to define Mr. Obama negatively, on its own terms, by creating a narrative intended to turn the public off to an opponent. (emphasis mine)

We laugh and laugh about it, but in the meantime, McCain’s poll numbers in national polls have consolidated in the mid-40s.

Battleground state polls are starting to show effect today. Today’s Quinnipiac polls show some worrying trends as well (though Obama is still ahead). In Florida, for example:

Independent voters in the state have shifted toward McCain — 46 percent support him compared with 41 percent who prefer Obama. In the same poll taken last month, Obama led among independents, 47 percent to 37 percent.

And in the national bloodstream? The general meme of “presumptuous” or “celebrity” Obama – are they starting to leak out there? Well, take a look at today’s Politico:

Perhaps one of the clearest indications emerged Tuesday from the world of late-night comedy, when David Letterman offered his “Top Ten Signs Barack Obama is Overconfident.” The examples included Obama proposing to change the name of Oklahoma to “Oklobama,” and measuring his head for Mount Rushmore.

And the snickers about Obama’s perceived smugness may have a very real political impact as McCain launched its most forceful effort yet to define him negatively. It released a TV ad Wednesday describing Obama as the “biggest celebrity in the world,” comparable to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, stars who are famous for attitude rather than accomplishments.

The harsher treatment from comedians and columnists – coupled with the shift by McCain from attacking on policy to character issues – underscores the fine line that Obama is walking between confident and cocky. Once at pains to present himself as presidential, Obama now faces criticism for doing it too well.

Now, let’s take a step back and see where John McCain was:

1) First, we have a candidate who was not exactly beloved in the Republican party.

2) Second, he was having a great deal of trouble firming up his base and getting them excited enough to even bother to vote.

3) Third, he tried moving towards them on policy, but that’s proven to be a bit of a dud as none of them trust or believe him.

So, a major candidate without a strong base of support in his own party, and almost no way to encourage Republicans to vote FOR him.

The solution? Turn them against Barack Obama in a big way, and in doing so, consolidate a passionate base that, with enough stoking of the flames, will hate the liberal black candidate the Democrats have put up and will do whatever they can to vote against him.

He’s presumptuous, an empty suit celebrity along the lines of young white girls like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton? Even worse. Man, we have to vote against that guy!

And what starts to happen? A guy like James Dobson, who previously said “no way” to voting for McCain “under any circumstances,” now says:

“Neither of the candidates is consistent with my views,” Dr. Dobson said, speaking as a private citizen. “But Senator McCain is certainly closer to them than Senator Obama by a wide margin.

And so they jump to some nasty attacks over and over:

Obama would rather lose a war, Obama is a celebrity, Obama is an empty suit, Obama won’t visit the troops.

Repeat after me. Get Rush and the gang to repeat it (they are). Over and over again.

And what’s starting to happen? Polls are solidifying. The right-wing base is starting to gel. You see “movement among independents” (many of them who were disaffected Republicans apt to lean right anyway, but these attacks are persuading them).

This is part of step one in McCain’s strategy: SOLIDIFY THE BASE. That’s what he’s doing this summer. In the fall you’ll start to see him pivot and try to go after the swing voters in hopes of getting 50.1%, but in the meantime, he’s been very successful at firming up his base, and these ads are an essential part to that strategy.


The NYTimes calls it the “low road?” Perfect! The GOP base hates the NYTimes. Hell, the NYTimes went after Hillary late in the primaries when she was getting nasty (and more effective).

And what’s the Obama campaign doing in all this? Taking the “high road.”

Axelrod says “This isn’t the McCain we expected.” Robert Gibbs: “McCain is an honorable man, running an increasingly dishonorable campaign. Barack Obama: “You need to ask him what he’s for, not what he’s against.”


We have a perfect storm for the GOP: an unpopular president, a declining economy, and a war everyone wants to see end – not to mention, an inherently weak candidate. The ONLY way they can win is to tear down Obama enough to firm up their base, then find a way to pivot and make themselves seem appealing to those last few percentage points. And that’s exactly what they’re doing. And the Obama campaign is letting them.

Get scrappy Obama, no more worrying about “looking Presidential.” The high road is for suckers and we thought you knew this. Winning is really quite simple:

“John McCain is Bush’s 3rd Term”
and “John McCain is Completely Out of Touch and Knows Nothing about the Economy”

Repeat it over and over. Not just Obama, but a coordinated surrogate strategy with really tough talking points. Call his ads “pathetic” and what you’d expect from someone “who has nothing to offer but a 3rd Bush term and knows nothing about the economy.”

Frame HIM instead of allowing yourself to be framed. Because don’t be fooled Obama folks or Kossacks, that’s what’s starting to happen.

Victory may still be ours, but a landslide is increasingly unlikely and victory will be tougher to achieve. We have a very small window, a VERY small window to start pushing back aggressively. And accusing McCain of taking the “low road” won’t do it. We need to get in the muck and define him.

Offense. It’s what’s for dinner.


July 31, 2008 - Posted by | Media Strategy, Uncategorized | ,


  1. “We have a very small window, a VERY small window to start pushing back aggressively. And accusing McCain of taking the “low road” won’t do it. We need to get in the muck and define him.”

    Good luck with that.

    I don’t happen to own a radio or TV station, so all I can do is preach to the choir on liberal blogs on the intertubes. Apparently you have some greater communications resources at your disposal that will allow you to reach the masses, as well as the persuadable voters. Please update us and let us know where to look as your media campaign unfolds, and as you begin to “define” McCain.

    Comment by some dude | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  2. Great analysis. But please forward to Obama camp.

    Comment by Grace Jensen | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  3. I agree with going on offense. I am still not convinced that McCain shenanigans are going to work for him in the long run, but a good strong ad campaign by Obama to define Senator McCain is a good idea.

    Comment by smashartist | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  4. Glad to see that McCain’s “base has been solidifying” within 36 hours of an ad being released.

    You have Super Spidey Sense with polls. I quake at your brilliance

    Comment by Chester | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  5. Great work on this Dansac. I think we will see the Obama camp hitting back over the course of this month. What they should do is make BIG ad buys with their responses. The McCain attacks are out there, but mostly because they’re being played on the news shows. Obama’s offense should be seen by everyone, not just the Washington insiders who watch these shows like hawks.

    Comment by zenbowl | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  6. Great commentary. I keep begging the Obama campaign and Democrats in general to go on the offensive and stop responding with these weak, generous defenses, but it’s depressing how little any of them take this seriously. Why do they keep calling McCain “honorable”? He’s lying, uttering vicious smears, flipflopping on a daily basis, and constantly slamming Obama, as are his proxies in the Republican Party apparatus *and* the establishment media (just look at the newest claptrap from Maureen Dowd, Dana Milbank, Jake Tapper, etc.), but neither the Obama folks or the Democrats are calling McCain on any of it. In addition to debunking the McCain smears about Obama’s canceled visit to Landstuhl, why didn’t Obama and other Democrats blast the media on McCain’s repeated failure to vote on behalf of the troops? There should have been a week-long blitz on this stuff. Every single day we should have heard, “McCain says he supports the troops but he votes with President Bush against them over and over.” EVERY SINGLE DAY we should be hearing this. Yet instead we get weak responses, the Obama campaign is letting the *media* do the debunking, and McCain just gets to keep repeating the smear and look as if he really does care more about the troops. Obama’s people may not believe this kind of stuff sticks, but it does. I just pray they will wake up before it’s too late….

    Comment by eddie's father | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  7. Zen- I don’t think he needs to make big buys of the attack ads. He just needs to make a bunch of them. The McCain campaign has been very effective in getting tons of free media coverage of their ads by only running their ads in a few markets, but by making them controversial enough to get covered by the news networks.

    Comment by smashartist | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  8. smash – by big buys, I mean he needs to hit a bunch of markets. I understand McCain’s approach – but that’s what you do when you don’t have a lot of money. The way the media has handled this campaign so far, I wouldn’t trust them to give Obama’s ads the same free ride McCain’s have gotten.

    Comment by zenbowl | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  9. People forget that camp Obama never panicked when the poll was against them in the primary…20 points behind Hillary they never panicked. The press, media talking heads write him off as a loser but we see what happen…with McCain they know what they are doing…Summer is time to set up the apparatus to win in fall…watch starting from the convention till election day what they will do to McCain…While i believe that independent progressive groups like Moveon and labor groups should strike back hard at McCain…Team Obama do not panic as they already develop their strategy and will keep to it.

    Comment by Stan | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  10. Also i think that people are underestimating Barack…the guy is African American leading a white named McCain in the poll and in primary he defeated the feared Clinton Machine…common people it is summer people are not paying attention yet but watch out for fall…by the way i agree with Stan’s comment @ #9

    Comment by Emmy | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  11. Stan and Emmy, I’m not panicking, I’m strongly disagreeing with their strategy.

    If you think a candidate can’t be defined in the summer, just as Kerry, the elite, liberal, flip-flopper.

    Without attacking, you let your opponent drive the message, as McCain is starting to do this week.

    Comment by dansac | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  12. I agree with this article entirely. It seems to me the new McCain ads are going to be effective with the swing voters. I think Obama’s team needs to constantly hammer McCain with the idea that he is leading a DISHONORABLE effort to gain the White House. Attack him at his strength is Rove’s method and this is how to do it. Don’t pull punches, don’t diddle around with flacid pokes, be tough and firm. A couple on his greater team tried the dishonorable idea but they were nearly appologetic when the said it. I tell you it drives me nuts to see the dems’ reticence at striking back.

    Comment by Michael | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  13. I agree with this analysis and have been talking about it with people for several weeks. McCain can have something of a free run at raising Obama’s negatives because, after all, he black, educated, charismatic, etc.

    These kinds of messages work directly with those who want to believe them, but also — and more importantly — impact the low-information independence voter, who makes decisions not on policy but an overall ‘feeling’. For McCain, that’s a positive because of his biography. For Obama, that’s a negative because he is black.

    Obama’s only effective line of negative attack would be something like “McCain — a man of contrasts”:
    1) He’s a war hero, but voted against better care for our troops.
    2) He was a prisoner of war, but wants to keep the entire country a prisoner of the war in Iraq.
    3) He’s a supposed ‘straight-talker’, but changed his mind on tax cuts for the rich — now he’s in favor of it — and for potentially damaging our coasts with risky, expensive off-shore drilling — he used to be against it.
    4) He’s for campaign finance reform, but only after he was caught himself in the Keating 5 scandal.

    I hard-hitting series of these kinds of ads would help with independents, who are ready for a change.

    Comment by Dan L. | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  14. It’s sad to see a repeat of the previous election; it happened to Kerry and one would think the democrats and their leadership would now have a clear and formidable attack & counter-attack strategy of their own. During the previuous election, Kerry was rumored to have cautioned democrats to desist from attacking Bush. Many voices echoed sentiments similar to those in this lead article, but the democrats and the candidate were oblivious to and, perhaps, dismissive of such voices.

    What is also worring is democrats leave their own to fry and roast in the heat of the republican smear– their (democrats’) attitude to republicans’ vitriol attack on another democrat is: It is your show; it is your election; Fend for, and defend yourself. Contrast democrats’ passive response to malicious & brazenly untrue attacks on Obama with the republicans’ reponse to the mere suggestion McCain has issues with fidelity (even republicans who do not necessarily applaud McCain’s candidacy came to his defense and squashed the story).

    It is very sad because those who are close to, and manage Obama’s campaing probably dismiss our voices as those by people who do not understand how politics work. One would think that smear that doomed Kerry’s bid is a stark and clear lesson to democrats; one would think the dying days of Clinton-Obama duel would be a quick reminder to Obama handlers of the effectiveness of the republican/Rove’s “play book.”

    It is my sincere hope that Obama handlers rethink their strategy; I am convinced that if Obama is ceaselessly rebutting or defending allegations, he will lose the election. It is also my hope Obama himself ceases playing into the “arrogance” stereotype. Yes, he has power of speech his rival does not match– he can speak to crowds. Nonetheless, if he does not refine his retail-politiking skills, he will lose a significant segment of voters. The preceding lead article is on target on a wide range of issues: Whispers of, “Obama is too arrogant,” “the guy thinks he is already the President,” “the guy walks into a room and has a hard time connecting with individuals one-on-one,” are intensifying.

    The window is not too wide. I hope someone close to the campaign takes notice and speaks frankly with the candidate about these matters.

    Comment by Mekus | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  15. Here’s an article which I believe has helped to explain why the media bias against Obama. Read it and I think you will agree.

    Comment by SharonAustinTX | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  16. Listen.

    Here are some additional ways to go after McCain.

    1. Mock McCain on the Off Shore Drilling Hoax
    Premise: McCain doesn’t agree to drill in Alaska. He states that its a national emergency. He states that he will always protect America from all threats foriegn and domestic. Well if he truly believes that Off Shore Oil Drilling will bring down prices and it will help the American people why not drill in Anwar.

    Mocks: What do the polar bears have on McCain? Why would he turn his back on the American people for polar bears and caribou? If we are going to take risks with the environment for oil, don’t the coasts of Florida and California mean to the American people than a tundra that 99.99% of American’s have never visited?

    Hammer: He doesn’t want to drill in Anwar, because the Drill Now Campaign is a hoax and he thinks the American people are stupid enough to believe him. Even the Bush administration states that there will be no effect on prices.

    According to McCain and Bush, the effect is psychological. Just to get elected, they are willing to say anything.

    Solution: Drill now is not the answer. We need to need to be oil independent. Obama is investing $150 Billion over ten years to build our economic security by eliminating oil as our major engine for energy.

    There is also another opportunity to erode John McCain’s support from the right.

    2. Mock McCain on National Security (National Security Republican Strategy)

    Premise: Drill Now Campaign is dangerous to our national security. Russia, Venezuela, Iran, etc. all are trying to do us harm and undercut our economy and using oil revenue to do it.

    Mock: Why is McCain trying to put this country in danger by sending $700 Billion of our dollars to people who want to kill us and want to do us harm? I thought he loved America and he probably does, but he is willing to fund Iran, Russia, and Venezuela.

    I thought he loved America. He talks tough, but he want to continue to pay for their weapons, suicide bombers, military, and economic subterfuge with our oil purchases.

    What do they have on him? He seems patriotic, but I just don’t get it? (He would blow his top if this hit the media)

    Solution: Drill now is not the answer. We need to be oil independent, not just energy independent. Obama is investing $150 Billion over ten years to build our economic security by eliminating oil as our major engine for energy.

    Comment by Just for the Record | August 1, 2008 | Reply

  17. “John McCain’s entire series of negative, sophmoric, attack ads are part of a coordinated strategy to firm up the Republican base of support by turning them against Barack Obama. And it’s working.”

    This is exactly right. However Obama’s strategy of increased voter registration, ground game voter turn out efforts, and local networking will mobilize those who he trusts to see beyond these obvious attacks. Please don’t stress, I think Obama has more faith in the American electorate than McCain. Plus he has shown in his campaign against Senator Clinton that his team has mastered the “Math and Map” game.

    Comment by Small d dem | August 1, 2008 | Reply

  18. The GOP base is not enough to win a national election in 2008.

    Keep up with the times. It’s not 2000 anymore.

    Comment by Whispers | August 1, 2008 | Reply

  19. I agree, these ad are targeting not us all the facts all the time people, people with a computer better know as bloggers, youtube lovers, email debaters..but the older, Bush crowd whoes only form of communication is the 12:00pm news and the 6:00pm news, you know the ones,the ones who runs his ads in a snipet lope…I live in one of those areas and all they see is the lies, but by the time they get the truth they are in bed or the stories are on. What I call it is Prime Time Slime Not Caught By MSM till Bed Time.

    I bet they will never move Keith O to a 6:00pm.
    Or what I would like to see is and Fact Check segment with the guys for that would that be someting.

    Comment by DISABLED FEMALE VET | August 1, 2008 | Reply

  20. hmm.. thank you very much. usefull information

    Comment by Miley-Cyrus-Fan | August 1, 2008 | Reply

  21. Unhappily Obama cannot attack McCain and still be the One. The One who will ‘change’ the culture and allow all the downtrodden to ‘hope’ once again. McCain simply cannot be destroyed as Obama is being destroyed before all your disbelieving eyes. And all it took was for someone to say out loud that the would-be Emperor of the World really didn’t have any clothes.

    And how precisely did the ‘Celeb’ ad drive that stake through the Messiah’s heart ? Why if it is so base and untrue is it resonating still ? Days after its release.

    Maybe just maybe as that tiny voice keeps whispering to the true-believers —– Maybe it’s TRUE . Maybe, that ad was too accurate rather than not accurate at all, and the people in error are YOU, not those who find the ad brilliant because it’s true. Obama is clearly not a bubble-headed blonde bimbo. But that is not what the ad was saying. Maybe he is really just famous solely for being famous. Just like the others. A ‘fad’ and a shallow distraction .

    Just like the others.

    Comment by dougf | August 5, 2008 | Reply

  22. POW sums up McCain’s integrity. Obama needs to attack it. Exactly how does having been a POW qualify you to be President? More than likely it qualifies you for the nut house. Obama needs to make McCain seem dangerous–unpredictable, quick tempered, vengeful, eager to lash out, likely to take us to war for emotional and perhaps psychological reasons unrelated to national interests.

    Does the American voter want more wars? That’s what you’ll get with McCain and his experience as a POW.

    Comment by JohnH | August 26, 2008 | Reply

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