The Obama Victory Reconsidered

The Obama Victory: How Media, Money and Message Shaped the 2008 Election by Kate Kenski, Bruce W. Hardy, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Oxford University Press, 2010

The Performance of Politics: Obama's Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power, by Jeffrey C. Alexander, Oxford University Press, 2010
Barack Obama's presidential election victory in 2008 represents the most successful new product introduction in American history. A U.S. senator who had served but two years in Washington, and never run any governmental office or agency, began his campaign  for the presidency in February, 2007.  He narrowly won his party's nomination, beating the prohibitive favorite, Senator Hillary Clinton. He then won a decisive victory in the general election contest over John McCain, winning 28 states (including nine that had been won by George Bush in 2004), receiving 53% of the popular vote (a 7.2% margin), 365 Electoral College votes, and nearly 70 million popular votes, a margin of more than 9.5 million votes over McCain.

Two new books from Oxford University Press take different approaches to try to explain the general election result. Regrettably, neither has much to say about the primary fight, which was very hard-fought, and over a much longer period. That contest produced the Democratic candidate in what was shaping up to be a Democratic year even before the financial crisis in mid-September 2008, the point at which most analysts believe Obama sealed his victory.

Both books have interesting things to say, and to a certain extent, they complement each other to provide a more complete answer to the question of why Obama won. The focus of both books is the period from June to November 2008. The Jamieson book focuses on the ad wars, the messages each campaign tried to sell, and how well they worked. Jamieson says that Obama's messaging during the campaign had several distinct themes -- most importantly that Obama represented change and that McCain was more of the same -- Bush's third term. Without directly attacking McCain as too old, the campaign instead portrayed him as erratic, angry, and out of touch, particularly on economic issues. Jamieson discusses how the major media "primed" the messages of each campaign, and not surprisingly, in a fashion that benefited Obama.

She divides the general election race into five distinct periods, in several of which McCain did well, and in others of which Obama triumphed. Alexander studies three phases of the campaign, but more from a perspective of how messages were used to create the "hero" the American people wanted to elect while navigating "the boundaries of the civil sphere" (e.g., race, gender, ethnicity, religion). He studies the attempt by McCain to tag Obama as a celebrity candidate, the comet-like trajectory of the Palin campaign, and how each candidate performed during the critical days when the TARP bill was being debated and voted on in Congress.    

Jamieson and her co-authors conclude that the Obama campaign was much more consistent and relentless in its messaging (both positive and negative) than the McCain campaign, and that it used its enormous financial advantage to bury the McCain campaign in the crucial months of September and October. But Jamieson acknowledges in her book that virtually every political scientist who has studied prior elections concluded that the very low approval ratings for George Bush, and the sagging economy in the fall of 2008, all but guaranteed a Democratic win, regardless of other factors. So to some extent, her analysis is of how Obama skillfully played a very favorable playing field. To use a football metaphor, it is far easier to score after recovering a fumble by the other team in their territory than to have to move the ball down the field 80 yards.

By refusing to accept federal funding, Obama was free to raise an unlimited amount of money for the fall campaign, raising twice as much money in September alone (over $160 million) as McCain had to spend in the entire fall campaign.  

In the run-up to early voting in many states, the Obama campaign owned the airwaves the week of October 6 to 12. That media onslaught, plus a superior and broad ground effort, produced an enormous lead for Obama in early voting -- as much as 16% according to some surveys. The idea that Americans vote on the first Tuesday after a Monday in November is now ancient history; 34% of Americans voted early in 2008. As Jamieson recounts, McCain had a modest rebound in the last two weeks of October, following one of Obama's few miscues during the campaign, the "spreading the wealth around" comment to Joe the Plumber in Ohio. But there could be no rebound among those who had already voted for the other guy.

In October 2008, I participated in a few debates on behalf of the McCain campaign in Florida. Flipping the TV channels at night produced an Obama ad on pretty much every station during every commercial break, some of them linking McCain to Bush and others attacking McCain's health care plan. Jamieson describes the health care ad as deceptive and highly misleading (by suggesting that McCain would start taxing health care benefits while providing nothing in return). The ad war, to put it mildly, was not a fair fight.  

Obama's decision to opt out of the federal financing system got him a one-day scolding from the New York Times editorial board, but it also gave him the resources to build an organization to register new voters (particularly African-Americans, Latinos, and young voters), track them, and get them to vote (often in early voting), and to dominate the airwaves in all major media -- national and cable TV, radio, and print. Obama campaign head David Plouffe told the authors that the campaign had all the money it could use and had so much to play with that it was even able to place ads on evangelical radio stations to try to cut into McCain's big lead with this group of voters. Jamieson pays little attention to the organizational effort of the Obama campaign, which proved critical to Obama's narrow victory in several states. Alexander ignores the impact of Obama's financial advantage but does better on the organizational effort, providing a play-by-play of a Colorado Latino organizing weekend for Obama that had all the trappings of a cult revival/sensitivity group.

Jamieson and Alexander both agree that McCain scored with his celebrity ads, which were launched after Obama's trip to the Middle East and Europe. The ads, which linked Obama with Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson, took the glow off the trip, which had widened Obama's lead. Jamieson says McCain also connected in this period with his plan for a temporary holiday on gasoline taxes, a proposal scorned by economists, but which connected with motorists paying more than $4 a gallon for the first time. The impact of the celebrity ad campaign had worn off by the Democratic convention, during which time Obama's numbers moved up again.

McCain then drained Obama's post-convention momentum with his pick of Sarah Palin as his running mate. This surprise selection, coming the day after Obama's Invesco Field acceptance speech and followed by Palin's impressive speech at the GOP convention, catapulted the GOP ticket into the lead in early September. But it did not last long. Jamieson relies on survey numbers from 57,000 interviews during the campaign to show that the Palin pick turned out badly for McCain, hurting him with independents and weakening his advantage on the experience question.

Most Americans, by November, did not think Palin was qualified or ready to serve as president, and McCain was 73 years old, so succession was a real issue. The question of Palin's readiness might have also been applied to Obama, a man with fancy degrees but a very thin resume on the national scene, running for the top spot, not the second one on the ticket. Speech-making prowess is not the same as governing experience in terms of preparation and readiness for the job. But Obama's experience deficit never really became a major issue, and during the campaign -- particularly during the debates -- he passed the threshold test for acceptability as president.

Alexander does a good job describing Palin's meteoric rise, and then fall. Alexander is the first writer I have read to have noticed that during the first two weeks of September, Obama for the first time in the campaign seemed angry and off-stride. After being the "hot" candidate, the object of affection and hero-worship around the country and the world for nearly two years, all of a sudden, Palin was the newer, fresher face, even more dazzling. Obama seemed stressed to be out of the spotlight and not "the one."

Alexander is clearly a liberal, and one who was caught up in the Obama victory (this is apparent in the book's first pages describing the "magic" of Obama's election night victory as Alexander walked in Manhattan with his son). In detailing how the Palin selection gave McCain a jolt of momentum that wore off quickly, he describes the daily drip, drip, drip of stories from the mainstream media, obtained after each organization sent up small armies of reporters to dig for dirt on Palin in Alaska. As a surprise pick, there was plenty of interest in Palin, and there was nothing wrong with reporters trying to learn more about her. But if the Journolist saga of the last few weeks revealed anything significant about the mainstream liberal press, it is their behavior in two time periods in the 2008 campaign -- first looking to protect Obama after the Reverend Wright videos surfaced, and then trashing Palin after she arrived on the scene.

The Obama team believed that Palin did not have enough time and preparation to become an instant national candidate. They were right. This is not a knock on Palin. Obama had nearly two years as a national candidate to get ready for the general election. In addition, the McCain campaign's quickly constructed image of Palin as the reformer, earmark-opposer, and corruption fighter had holes. But Alexander never questions why the major media showed so much less interest in Obama's Chicago than they did in Palin's Alaska. Palin immediately came under attack for things said by speakers in her church in Wasilla. Obama had been a national candidate for over a year before Brian Ross produced video of Reverend Wright. These explosive videos were for sale at the church, had the media been interested. Would John McCain have gotten a pass had he attended a racist church for twenty years and sat through Reverend Wright-like sermons?

The major revelation in the Jamieson book is the explanation for why McCain refused to inject the Wright controversy into the fall campaign, even though McCain pollster Bill McInturff had concluded that doing so might result in a win in enough of the battleground  states to win the Electoral College. McInturff argues that a win obtained in that fashion would have undermined McCain's presidency.

If John McCain's going to win, we're going to lose the popular vote by three million. There will be an enormous potential for urban violence. Imagine if we had done that and he'd been doing Reverend Wright and trying to actually serve as American President. It would have delegitimized his Presidency. 

The comment is revealing in many ways. It acknowledges that the McCain campaign realized how tough the race would be.  It also underscores why they went with a surprise pick like Sarah Palin -- winning a sizable share of Hillary Clinton voters seemed like the only path to victory. In 2000, George Bush was elected with just 271 Electoral College votes. Had Bush lost any of the thirty states he won, Gore would have won the presidency. In 2004, Bush won the popular vote by 3 million, but secured only 286 Electoral College votes. Had John Kerry won Ohio, or 18 Electoral College votes from Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa, and Colorado, all states he lost by small margins, Kerry would have won.

In 2008, the battle was fought in Bush states, not Kerry states. McCain made a major effort in two blue states -- New Hampshire and Pennsylvania -- but lost both by 9%-10%. The Obama team early on identified easy targets: Iowa, for one, and also three southwestern states where Hispanic voter shares had grown -- Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. They went after Florida, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Missouri, and Indiana, winning all but Missouri. The money advantage allowed Obama to make a major effort in Georgia, Montana, and North Dakota, all states McCain won, but three more in which he had to play defense. To use another sports analogy, if all the action in a hockey game is on one side of the ice, that is where the goals will be scored. 

The other part of the McInturff comment that is worth noting relates to the reaction by African-Americans had Obama, like Gore, won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College. In 2004, Kerry won the black vote 88% to 11%, by a margin of just over 10 million votes (11% of the electorate). In 2008, Obama won the black vote 95% to 4%, securing a margin of about 15.5 million votes (13% of the electorate). Obama's effort to register Hispanics and gain their support for the ticket increased the Democratic margin by over 3 million among this group. As to fears that white racism would undo the Obama campaign -- it did not happen. Bush won the white vote by 17%, McCain by only 12%. Obama's approval rating among white voters has dropped  in 2009-2010, but given their votes for him in 2008, the drop-off seems to reflect a judgment on his competency and management, not his race.

John McCain grew up in the military. His campaign for the presidency wanted to focus on international affairs, and in particular the threat to America and the free world from Islamic radicalism. But 2008 was an election year when domestic priorities trumped international concerns, and McCain was not playing his long suit. During the financial crisis in late September, Obama appeared calm and informed and came off more presidential than McCain, who looked impulsive, with his call for suspending the campaign and delaying the first debate. It was the final nail in the coffin, according to Alexander. Jamieson argues that Obama stumbled a bit in the polls after the Joe the Plumber comment, but that his final media push -- especially the half-hour program broadcast on many networks with Obama retelling his life story and his hopes and dreams -- reversed any damage that had been done to his standing.

Alexander argues that America wants to elect a hero. It might be better if we went for competence and governing experience next time around. The enormous drop-off in support for President Obama eighteen months into his presidency suggests that there is resistance from the majority of Americans to the goal of "spreading it around" rather than building the size of the total pie so that many more can prosper. So far, it is mainly the size of government, the level of federal spending, the regulatory meddling, and the number of jobless that have grown. It also looks like certain groups of Americans -- unions and trial lawyers among them -- are collecting the spoils of spreading it around, and certain big companies (GE, Google) are the beneficiaries of crony capitalism. But 15 million Americans are unemployed, many more are  underemployed or foreclosed out of their homes, and the business climate, as far as new hiring goes, is still very poor. This is not the story the Obama campaign told -- no red states or blue states, but United States, all of us in this together, growing a new and better America. America fell for the sizzle, and now it wants something more.

Richard Baehr is chief political correspondent of American Thinker.
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