By now, it is almost universally accepted that Obama has run the better general election campaign; the media has constantly contrasted Obama’s ability to stay on message with McCain’s struggle to find a coherent campaign theme. More recently, of course, news accounts based on unnamed sources depict internal bickering within the McCain campaign organization. It may surprise you, then, to hear that I find little hard evidence that Obama’s campaign has been run significantly more effectively than McCain’s. Indeed, I find that both organizations have made mistakes in campaign strategy. If I am right, what accounts for the media narrative that suggests Obama has run the more effective campaign? I believe it is driven by three misleading factors:
First, Obama is ahead, and has been, according to almost every poll since the credit meltdown began in late September. Second, Obama has a more visible campaign presence in most states, as indicated by more campaign offices and a bigger ad campaign. Third, Obama has stuck to a single campaign theme, rarely straying from that central message in which he is portrayed as an agent of change, and McCain depicted as a Bush clone.
Upon closer inspection, however, none of these necessarily indicates that Obama has run the better campaign in terms of strategy. To begin, our forecast models predicated on the fundamentals indicated back in August – before the general election campaign began – that Obama would win this election by about 4%. To date, his lead is within this margin in most polls. So Obama is not doing significantly better than we thought he would – at least according to the polls. Second, Obama’s heightened campaign visibility is a testament to his huge fundraising advantage. But it doesn’t prove that he has used his much greater resources more wisely than has McCain. Finally, the reason that Obama has proved so effective at staying on message is because he has the easier message to send: “I’m not Bush.” Period. As long as he is ahead in the polls, there’s no reason to change that message. In contrast, McCain has started with the harder sell – he’s had to position himself as an agent of change in the context of running as the incumbent party’s nominee. In this respect, he has faced the more difficult challenge, which explains his search for a winning narrative that might more favorably frame an otherwise inhospitable political context.
When a campaign is perceived to be losing, invariably the long knives come out, as unnamed sources begin to assign blame, aided and abetted by a media that is determined to find a reason for the loss that is based on personalities and daily strategy, rather than on the fundamentals that actually drive elections. But these media analyses are almost always after the fact, driven by hindsight, and with very little concrete evidence that they are correct.
I write this post in part because I believe Obama recently made another campaign error – not a fatal one, to be sure, but one that undoubtedly will be overlooked by the press. Rather than marshal his resources in key battleground states, he evidently has decided to put money into buying television ads in Arizona in the hopes of winning McCain’s home state. In my view, this is a mistake because the chances of winning Arizona’s 10 electoral votes do not merit the effort there. He would be far better off using that money in Florida, Ohio, or North Carolina, all tossup states that McCain must win to have a chance to be president and in which polling currently shows that both candidates are running neck and neck.
Now, in Obama’s defense, it may be that he has enough wealth to buy television time in Arizona without weakening his effort in the important battleground states. And if he turns Arizona blue and wins the election, his strategy will be proven correct. But at this point, from my perspective, I am hard-pressed to make the case that the money isn’t better spent in other battleground states.
My broader point is that too often we judge campaign effectiveness by superficial indicators that do not adequately measure what we are trying to assess. I think this is the case to date in comparing the two campaigns’ overall strategy. In my view, each campaign has made about an equal number of mistakes, and neither has clearly outshone the other.