Strategy ’08

Obama vs. the other guy, 2008

The Medium Is the Message

I agree with zenbowl on the awfulness of McCain’s speech, and I still think that in general this election is Obama’s to lose, but I want to make an important point that should temper some of the triumphalism we’re feeling today:

About halfway through the Democratic primaries, people (and by “people” I mean Nate Silver) started figuring out that demography was destiny. Based on the demos of a particular state — as well as whether it was a caucus or a primary — one could predict the final results with eerie accuracy. Along similar lines, what we’ve seen so far in this election indicates that which candidate is setting the agenda is pre-determined by the medium in which the battle is being fought.

The general election kicked off back in June with Obama’s triumphant victory speech and McCain’s “green-screen” disaster, after which Obama jumped out to a big lead (and the lefty blogosphere started measuring Oval Office drapes). Over the next couple months, the campaign was largely fought over TV ads and daily spin. McCain’s operation is much better at that than Obama, and helped him close the gap (as we all freaked out). Then we had the convention. Once again, the focus was on speeches, and Obama outshone McCain (and we’re back to “McCain is SCREWED”).

The next phase of the campaign, however, starts in three weeks with the debates. And what’s really fascinating is that it’s not entirely clear which candidate will be better in that medium. McCain does well in solo town halls and was judged the winner of the Saddleback pseudo-debate, but it’s not clear he’s as good in one-on-one match-ups (did he even have any with Bush in ’00?) and the press will certainly be on the lookout for any more Czechoslovakia-style gaffes. Obama, meanwhile, did not show himself to be a great debater vs Hillary, but as James Fallows has argued, he did very well in his 2004 debates with Alan Keyes, so the potential is there. Also, the bar will be relatively low for Obama — he mostly just has to look presidential and reassure voters that he reaches the so-called “Commander-in-Chief” threshold.

And once the debates are over in early October, we’ll have another month of ad wars (advantage: McCain), right up until the last couple days before the election, when ground game becomes paramount (advantage: Obama).

Of course, I don’t want to make it sound as though it’s just a matter of tallying up the winners in each phase. Even when McCain was succeeding in setting the agenda over the past few months, he still never pulled ahead of Obama, because the fundamentals of this race still support the Democrats. Still, it’s worth keeping this dynamic in mind over the next two months. There will almost certainly be some rocky periods, and the media will almost certainly try to tell us Obama is “reeling” or some such nonsense, just as they did in Pennsylvania and Ohio, when the truth is that it’s just that he’s playing on the other guy’s turf. Keep that in mind and try not to let yourself get too high or too low.


September 5, 2008 - Posted by | Media Strategy


  1. Actually, I think with Palin on the ticket, the ground game from the McCain team will be equally matched to our ground game, and the enthusiasm gap that used to exist will be bridged, so it’ll be a very CLOSE election in which McCain could definitely win.

    Comment by slinkerwink | September 5, 2008 | Reply

  2. Gotta disagree with you there Slink. McCain’s ground game is nowhere near the game that Obama has. They have increased enthusiasm (but the gap has not been bridged), but they don’t have the infrastructure in place to most effectively capitalize on that enthusiasm. It’ll be better today and tomorrow than it was pre-Palin, but I still think in terms of sophistication it’s still going to be dwarfed by Obama.

    That’s not a prediction of an outcome, you know I think that stuff helps on the margins. But the GOP won’t have the ground game we do this year.

    Comment by dansac | September 5, 2008 | Reply

  3. I basically agree with you though I keep feeling all “secret weaponish” with both the ground game, the real possibility of finally increasing the youth vote, and the difficulties of polling this race.

    Plus there’s McCain’s capture-the-religious-right-ignore-independents-and-moderates aspect of all this.

    And I still feel that McCain has made a statement to the country: “I’m losing.” A strong female candidate could have gotten both the base and moderates….Palin could have been that candidate had she been properly vetted and rolled out.

    Sorry for the rambling. I feel cautiously optimistic. I don’t think Palin solves all of McCain’s base problems and it’s doubtful to me that they’ll be motivated to create the kind of organization they had in previous election years.

    Comment by ksh01 | September 5, 2008 | Reply

  4. But, dansac, you’d be surprised at how the infrastructure to get out the vote can easily be provided by the megachurches themselves. I’m going to do a google map of the megachurches in battleground states, and then check to see which county they’re in that will swing the state over to McCain.

    Comment by slinkerwink | September 5, 2008 | Reply

  5. Agree that Obama will have lower expectations in the debate – unless the media sticks to the scripts they’ve been clinging to.

    Disagree that the ad wars automatically go to McCain – particularly if he goes with the “change” theme. There’s just too much damaging stuff out there that directly ties McCain to Bush, and that the Obama team can keep going back to, to reinforce the idea that Obama is the change candidate.

    That well will not run dry before November.

    Comment by zenbowl | September 5, 2008 | Reply

  6. Is anyone getting nervous?!?! For some reason, I’m especially nervous that people are looking to find reasons to vote for McCain. Does anyone else get that feeling?

    Comment by Suzie Q (not the blogger) | September 5, 2008 | Reply

  7. Zenbowl, I think the Republicans are looking to take off the focus off McCain by prominently featuring Sarah Palin in his ads. They want people to be given a reason to vote for McCain and that’s Palin.

    Comment by slinkerwink | September 5, 2008 | Reply

  8. Suzie, not really. And I get nervous very easily. I look at all these national polls and I’ve never seen McCain break out of the low-to-mid-40s. If the convention doesn’t bust him out of it, I’m not sure what will, unless he creams Obama in a debate

    Comment by dansac | September 5, 2008 | Reply

  9. Slink – if all they have is their VP, that’s not much. She may be compelling to some on the right, but “I have a nice VP who people seem to enjoy” will not win a campaign.

    Comment by zenbowl | September 5, 2008 | Reply

  10. here’s something that’s been bugging me all day. Obama isn’t good at soundbytes and I wish he’d get better.

    I just feel like he needs to lose the nuance, state things simpler and clearer.

    Also, he seems to have a lack of surrogates to talk about the economy.

    Comment by netrootnews | September 6, 2008 | Reply

  11. Not all “megachurches” are that political. (I know the territory.) There’s a definite opening here for Obama overtures to thinking evangelicals of the Jim Wallis stripe – a lot of us are turned off by the extreme views of a Sara Palin and embarrassed by how she represents “us.” No question at least two-thirds will go McCain. But a third of millions is still a lot.

    Comment by Elizabeth | September 7, 2008 | Reply

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