Campaign Themes, Strategies, and Developments

Barack Obama's campaign themes and strategies

Obama's overarching campaign theme was the need for change. His theme of change had two facets. First, it meant a change in the White House, replacing the failed Bush presidency with a Democratic presidency. Second, it meant a change in the way that Washington worked. Divisive partisanship should be replaced by a more cooperative post-partisanship approach. Excessive influence of lobbyists in the legislative process should be replaced by a greater concern with the public good. Thus, Obama believed that voters were not only unhappy with the Bush administration but that they were also unhappy with the nature of politics in Washington.

For this theme to be effective, Obama had to link McCain to the failures of the Bush administration. The link was based in part on the simple fact that McCain was the Republican nominee. Even though he was not part of the Bush White House, and even though he did not always support the Bush administration, McCain nevertheless would be linked in the eyes of many voters because he represented the same party as the president. Moreover, McCain's policy positions in many cases were similar to those of President Bush, which provided another basis for linking the two individuals. The Obama strategy was to equate McCain and Bush as much as possible.

Obama's theme of change also encompassed changes in public policy. On the domestic side, Obama proposed: (a) major health care reform; (b) policies to reshape the economy, especially regarding energy consumption and environmental protection; and (c) increased taxes for top income earners, combined with tax cuts for lower-income individuals. On foreign policy and national security, he favored reducing troop levels in Iraq as quickly as possible and placing more emphasis on winning the war in Afghanistan.

The fact that Obama had not been part of the Congress for many years made it easier for him to present himself as an agent of change. However, it also left him open to the criticism that he lacked the experience to be president. Therefore, part of his campaign strategy was to assure voters that he was capable of handling the job—that he had the knowledge, the judgement, and the temperament to be a successful president.

Finally, Obama's campaign strategy included a strong effort to establish effective campaign organizations throughout the nation. He relied on just such an effort to capture the Democratic nomination, and he extended that effort into the presidential campaign, especially in the competitive states. One aspect of this effort involved rejecting the public subsidies that were available for his presidential campaign, instead raising his own funds. He was extremely successful in doing so, which provided him with vastly superior resources to McCain, who accepted public funding. There was criticism of Obama for being the first presidential candidate to reject public funding for the general election, but it did not seem that many voters were troubled by this decision.

With his superior resources, Obama was able to target a large number of competitive states, including many that were carried by Bush in 2004, such as Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Virginia. These financial resources allowed the Democrats to run numerous campaign ads and to fund an aggressive campaign organization in each targeted state.

John McCain's campaign themes and strategies

McCain recognized that change was part of the national political mood in 2008 and that the Bush administration was extremely unpopular. Therefore, he emphasized his credentials as someone who would change Washington, and he attempted to distance himself from President Bush as much as possible.

McCain tried to rely on his established image as a Republican maverick to argue that he could work with members of both parties in Congress, pointing to many instances when he had done so during his long career as a senator. He argued that his record proved that he, not Obama, would be better able to provide effective bipartisan leadership. However, his age and his long service in Washington may have led many voters to doubt that he would change Washington very much.

His selection of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate was designed to emphasize change. Palin was a fresh face on the national scene, and she had a reputation of being able to work well with Democrats in the state legislature during her short tenure as governor of Alaska. Republican strategists claimed that she was an independent maverick, just like McCain. While this choice initially seemed to benefit the Republican ticket, Palin's inability to project knowledge and a command of the issues ultimately proved to be a drag on the ticket.

McCain attempted to distance himself from president Bush by talking about times when he disagreed with the president and by pointing out that he was not part of the incumbent administration in any way. Furthermore, he criticized Obama for trying to link him to Bush, arguing during one debate that if Obama wanted to run against Bush, he should have done so in 2004, when Bush was on the ballot. However, he found it difficult to criticize the Bush administration too much, as doing so would alienate the Republican base.

Perhaps most importantly, McCain argued that he had the experience and maturity to be president, and that Obama did not. This strategy involved contrasting his own lengthy record of military and public service with Obama's short resume. Moreover, McCain used his military and political record to argue that he was a dedicated public servant who put his country above his party or his personal interests. McCain especially emphasized his considerable experience in national security matters, stating that Obama's inexperience in this area would be dangerous for the nation.

Finally, McCain argued that Obama was too liberal for America. He criticized several of Obama's major proposals, such as health care reform, as expanding the role of government beyond what most Americans wanted. Besides attacking Obama's stands on specific public policy issues, the McCain campaign also attempted to characterize Obama as far to the left by raising questions about Obama's ties to a 1960s radical, William Ayres.

Campaign developments

The Democrats held their national convention first, in late August. Despite the intense conflict between Obama and Hillary Clinton over the nomination, and despite the disappointment of many of Clinton's supporters that she was not chosen to be the vice presidential nominee, the scene in Denver was one of relative unity among the delegates. Clinton exhorted her followers to campaign for Obama. Obama gave what most observers rated thought was an excellent acceptance speech, which he delivered not in the convention hall but before a large crowd in an football stadium. The party seemed united behind the Obama-Biden ticket. Nevertheless, Obama received only a modest post-convention bounce. Polls taken shortly after the convention showed Obama with a several point lead over McCain.

The Repubican campaign followed in early September. Just prior to the convention, McCain announced that he had selected Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate. It was a surprise selection. Palin was hardly known outside of her home state. Moreover, she lacked political experience. She was in her first term as governor, and she had not held any office of great consequence before being elected governor. Her selection seemed to undercut one of McCain's campaign strategies, which was to argue that Obama was too inexperienced to be president. However, McCain saw this as a bold move, one that would shake up the campaign. He thought that Palin would be seen as someone who would bring fresh ideas to Washington. The selection of Palin was highly popular among Republicans, especially the more conservative wing of the party. Her convention acceptance speech was enthusiastically received by the delegates. McCain received a sizable post-convention bounce. Polls showed him about even with or perhaps slightly ahead of Obama (Cohen and Balz 2008).

The initial excitement about Palin gave way to doubts, at least among many swing voters, if not among the Republican faithful. In two prominent interviews with television journalists, she seemed uninformed about many policy issues. Some of her responses to questions seemed to be simplistic and confusing. In fact, the comedian Tina Fay received rave reviews for parodying Palin on the television show Saturday Night Live. Doubts about Palin's ability to assume the presidency rose drastically.

A series of three presidential debates were to be held, along with one vice presidential debate. The first debate was scheduled for late September and was supposed to deal with foreign affairs, presumably McCain's strong suit. However, in mid-September, a serious financial crisis that had been brewing throughout the year erupted. A major financial institution, Lehman Brothers, filed for bankruptcy. The credit markets were becoming frozen. The financial crisis threatened to have severe repercussions for the entire economy. President Bush proposed immediate and drastic government intervention to prevent a complete freeze of the credit markets. Now the first debate would have to deal with economic matters as well, which undoubtedly worked to Obama's advantage.

Even worse for McCain, his reaction to this financial crisis raised doubts about his ability to handle economic matters. He initially responded to the Lehman Brothers failure by saying that the economy was fundamentally sound, words that the Obama campaign was happy to use against him. Two days before the first debate, McCain announced that he was suspending his campaign, that he was going to Washington to help pass the financial bailout legislation, and that he would not participate in the first debate. He urged Obama to do the same. Obama did not, arguing that the debate should go on because the American public needed to hear what the candidates had to say about the financial crisis. Public reaction seemed to favor Obama's position. What McCain undoubtedly hoped would be seen as a bold act of leadership was interpreted as erratic behavior by many voters and media pundits.

In the end, McCain came to the debate, which Obama decisively won. A Gallup poll found that 46% of the viewers thought that Obama was the winner, while only 34% rated McCain the winner (Newport 2008). After the debate, 30% said that they had a more favorable opinion of Obama; only 14% had a less favorable opinion. For McCain, as many voters had a less favorable opinion of him as had a more favorable one. At this point in the campaign, Obama had a lead of several points in the polls.

The next debate was between the two vice presidential candidates. Much more attention was focused on this debate than for past vice presidential debates because of the questions of Palin's knowledge and qualifications. Palin performed better in the debate than she had in her two major television interviews. She stuck to her script as much as possible, and she avoided making any serious gaffes, which reassured many Republicans. She did not, however, perform well enough to erase the doubts that many people had about her. Moreover, Biden also did well and was generally credited with being the winner of the debate, so there was no narrowing of the lead that Obama had in the polls.

The next presidential debate used a town hall format. McCain supposedly was more comfortable with this arrangement, so Republicans hoped that this would be a decisive victory for him. While McCain may have performed better in this debate than in the first one, Obama also did well. The post-debate polls showed Obama as the winner of this debate as well, by a margin of 54% to 30%, according to a CNN poll (Steinhouser 2008). Some observers felt that McCain was hurt because he appeared old as he walked around the stage, while Obama appeared young and vigorous.

The final debate was more of the same. McCain was more vigorous in his attacks on Obama, but the majority of viewers thought that Obama had done better, by a margin of 58% to 31%, according to a CNN poll (CNN 2008). Favorable opinions of Obama were up somewhat after the debate; favorable opinions of McCain dropped slightly. After three debates, McCain was clearly behind in the polls. There were no dramatic developments during the last two weeks of the campaign, and the election outcome was about as expected from the polls taken at the end of October.

More information on the campaign themes and messages of Obama and McCain can be obtained by examining their campaign speeches and televised campaign ads.