Has Obama Really Run the Better Campaign?

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.


  1. Arizona is “pink” in some maps now. As you’ve stated before, colors matter little, considering the very slight changes that can have an impact. I’m curious about arizona’s “shift?”…is it meaningful at all given it is mccain’s homestate, and does obama even stand the slightest chance of winning? My guess is that you will say no to both counts for the reason that data does not support either possibility, but I’m curious.

  2. Tarsi – It is meaningful in the sense that polling data has led Obama’s staff to think he has a chance to win 10 more electoral college votes! The question is whether the potential gain, when compared to what he might get in other states, is worth the expenditure. My guess is that it is not. Except for the Daily Kos poll, Obama hasn’t come closer than 4% in this state in any recent poll that I know of. so it’s a longshot that he’ll win there, and he certainly isn’t going to make McCain spend money there – McCain doesn’t have any money to spare!

  3. I think Obama’s AZ ad buy is more of a posturing move than actual electoral strategy. He has the money to spare, and it becomes newsworthy to help define the story that McCain’s in even more trouble than we thought (whether polls bear that out or not). Over the past few weeks, Obama’s been able to define the news cycles much better than McCain, which is partly the benefit of leading the polls, but also because his moves seem to be active rather than reactive. This is another example of that.

  4. Jason – I think have much less faith in the relative merits of posturing and winning media cycles than you do, which is perhaps not surprising given our respective disciplines! I think you get more bang for your buck by spending money on actual GOTV and advertising, but I recognize that you might be right – that the media “spin” concerning Obama turning McCain’s home state blue might swing more voters his way. The problem is that I just don’t have evidence to support this – at least not yet.

  5. Professor Dickinson,

    Your argument about Obama needing to spend money in other locations would be very acceptable in past elections. In the past money has been a limiting factor. However, I think for the Obama campaign and its $600 million they might be running out of places to spend money. I don’t know how many ads and how much money can be spent, but with the few remaining days, they might really need spend some of that extra cash. Also, I think that aiming at Arizona is nothing but a posturing move. The fact that Obama is event thinking about going in to McCain’s home turf shows 1) How strong Obama’s camp believe they are and 2) How weak they percieve McCain’s camp to be. Of course, I’d like to believe your argument that they have made a mistake with spending decisions. However, until I can see some numbers on the Obama budget and how they look financially I believe we must take into account that they have their heads screwed on somewhat right and are doing this because they can and it won’t affect other advertising campaigns.

  6. Deciding which is the “better” campaign is, as you point out, at best an apples-to-oranges calculation. But I’m skeptical of your claims that both campaigns have made an equal number of mistakes, if only because with the broader strategic strokes, alternatives are unexplored – sure, maybe the Obama campaign would have prospered with Hillary as VP, but who knows?

    In the comparable elements of the campaigns, though – those which are quantifiable and on which both campaigns depend – Obama seems to have an edge – fundraising, advertising, GOTV, voter enthusiasm, etc. Certainly, the causal relationship between these factors and a “good” campaign is iffy, but I think we can assume that causality is at least partially intertwined with these things. I.e., a good campaign raises money, and successful fundraising reinforces a good campaign. How much of that is the fundamentals, rather than the campaign is up in the air – but I don’t think we can confidently say it’s exclusively (or even primarily) the former.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *