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Monday, September 15, 2008

The Political Science Class Lessons of the Obama Campaign

The Obama campaign has been remarkable both for its revolutionary campaign strategy that catapulted the campaign against the prohibited favorite Hillary Clinton and for its missteps that now have it on the brink of allowing John McCain a victory that he should not have under any circumstances. There are lessons all over the place that any advanced level political science class would likely analyze in depth. First, let's start with the positives.

1) Recognizing your base and how that base will help you win.

His base during the primaries was African Americans, youth, and those sort of East Coast intellectual liberals. This base was tailor made for the caucus system. That's because college students especially can dedicate the time necessary for a full day of caucus going. Obama won most of the caucus states and that's because he focused on cultivating his base which was tailor made for those states.

2) Harnessing the power of the internet

His uplifting theme gave him early excitement. Excitement means little early on since no one can vote. As such, the candidate needs to turn that early excitement into something the campaign can use: volunteers and cash. That's exactly what his sophisticated campaign on the interent has done. His website isn't merely the place where you can find detailed explanations of his policy positions and created a community. (it was a community that showed a knack for lunacy as Charles Johnson at LGF has reported) This harnessing of the internet propelled Obama to take an uplifting and hopeful message and turn that message into a fundraising juggernaut.

Now, for the bad

1) The 50 state strategy

Talk about hubris. Did Barack Obama really think that he could win in North Dakota, Georgia, North Carolina and Idaho? Apparently, right before Sarah Palin was chosen he was also putting in some resources into Alaska. This so called 50 state strategy wasted all sorts of money on states he has no hope of winning. As such, his superior fundraising advantage has been partially eaten up by pouring resources into states he will lose anyway. How many of the millions he poured into Georgia could have been used to put more resources into Ohio? All he really did was turn blue states purple and purple states red with this strategy. As such, he appears out of it in Florida. He is struggling in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and he might even have problems in Minnesota. Ohio may once again wind up being the state that decides it all he's lost precious millions that could have been poured into that state by focusing on North Dakota.

2) VP's

Call this error the corrossive power of following the conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom says that the Vice President means nearly nothing, and that in choosing a Vice President all the Presidential candidate needs to do is make sure that they do no harm. By that standard, choosing Joe Biden was a smart move. Well, that totally uninspired pick may have gotten the ball rolling on his collapse. First, he positioned himself as an outsider ready to shake up D.C. Then, he picks a thirty plus year insider as his VP. It appears he wanted to allay fears that he doesn't have enough foreign policy gravitas. That's fine but he could have just as easily picked Bill Richardson and maintained his outsider image. Now, maybe the vetting process found something unseemly in Richardson's past and that poisoned him. I don't know, but I do know that picking Biden was the beginning of the kiss of death for the Obama campaign. There is nothing fresh, new or exciting about Biden and if that is what you are running on, the pick is cynical.

More than that, the campaign admits that they were stunned by the Palin pick. They didn't see it coming. The MSM has been fixated that the McCain campaign didn't vet Palin. The evidence for this is dicey at best, and frankly, more realistically, non existent. Yet, they overlook the fact that the Obama campaign didn't prepare themselves at all for McCain picking Sarah Palin. Why not? It's because they were reading the tea leaves of conventional wisdom in determining the VP pick, the MSM. What sort of an asinyne strategy is this? What gave them the idea that the MSM knew who McCain would pick? Wouldn't a better source for inciteful information on his potential VP pick have been the Conservative media? Bill Kristol predicted this pick in June. Conservative blogs were talking about her as a potential pick for months. Why was the Obama campaign relying on the MSM for information on McCain's VP pick?

Then, once she was picked, the Obama campaign totally fell apart. They began attacking her lack of experience, and that allowed Republicans to counter that Obama is even more inexperience than her. This created a back and forth between their Presidential candidate and the Republican's VP candidate. That is no strategy for success. The latest swipe is the Democrat's obsession with the bridge to nowhere. Palin's been the VP pick for more than two weeks and so far the Obama campaign has no idea what to do with her. The has its nexus directly in the fact that they had no idea she may even be picked.

3) The Hillary Factor

Hillary Clinton got 18 million votes and so did the Barack Obama. During the primaries, Democrats came out in significantly larger numbers than Republicans. All Barack Obama needed to do was make sure that her votes would come along with him the general election and victory was all but assured. Instead, he is facing a large number of voter mutiny from Hillary voters.

Now, trying to maneuver this mine field is no easy task, but then again, neither is stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. I don't think it would surprise anyone if they learned that Hillary is secretly rooting for McCain. The easiest thing that Obama could have done was choose her for VP, however that carried a lot of baggage and would have made governance difficult. He could also have chosen a female as his VP.

Part of his problem was that he didn't recognize until late that his bitter fight with her was causing general election friction. Her voters felt that the media was treating her unfairly, and they felt that Obama didn't seem to care. Obama really had this nomination wrapped up by about February. Had he become more magnanomous then things could have been different. For instance, he played hardball on both Michigan and Florida. That was his right but he would have anyway even if he allowed her votes to count. The friction continued all the way into the convention. It appears the Obama campaign thought they could heal wounds created after months of campaigning through a series of speeches over a couple of days. The plethora of former Hillary voters at McCain campaign rallies says different.

3) McCain=Bush 3

Yes, this was effective for a while and certainly it was tempting. That said, there was a point where it stopped being effective and yet the Obama campaign couldn't resist ending its usage. Here is how Dick Morris described the dangers of this strategy.

That’s what the Democratic convention has been doing in Denver. They are so anxious to run against Bush, their animosity is so pent up, that they persist in running against a man who is not seeking a third term. In speech after speech, the Democrats knock the Bush record and then add, lamely, that McCain is the same as Bush. Or they call the McCain candidacy Bush’s third term. It was no accident — or Freudian slip — when Joe Biden spoke of John Bush instead of George in his litany of attacks.

This pattern of shooting at the decoy, not the duck, gives McCain a bold strategic opportunity. He can nullify the impact of the entire Democratic convention simply by distancing himself from Bush.

The truth is, of course, that McCain is the most unlike Bush of any of the Republican senator. (When Obama’s people claim that Bush and McCain voted the same 94 percent of the time, they forget that most of the votes in the Senate are unanimous.) The fact that McCain backs commending a basketball team on its victory doesn’t mean that he is in lockstep ideologically with the president.

From the beginning painting McCain as a Bush clone was dicey. McCain is about as far away from Bush as just about anyone in the Republican party. More than that, Bush is not on the ballot. I know the Democrats really want him to be on it, but he isn't. Once McCain picked Palin the Obama campaign should have recognized that this strategy would be even more dicey. Now, you have surrogates like Tony Knowles, former Governor of Alaska, pontificating that she is herself a Bush clone. Palin has an 80% approval rating for heaven's sake while Bush struggles for 30%. Is that really an argument they want to make?

Obama thought he had an effective strategy that he could carry all the way to November 4th, however campaigns are all about moves and counter moves. McCain made an effective counter to Obama's assertion that he is nothing more than a Bush clone. It was up to Obama to find a new line of attack or at least to change the same attack so that it would be effective. His poll numbers have been dropping since the beginning of August and he hasn't made an adjustment. Denial ain't a just a river in Egypt. Just because the campaign refuses to acknowledge that Bush three isn't working, doesn't mean it will work. Obama still has plenty of time to adjust, but he first must recognize that there is something to adjust. Bush 3 needs to go and he must replace it with something new. If he doesn't, his refusal to recognize a faling strategy will be the subject of case studies in many advance political science classes.

Here is how I viewed the other side.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you on all but one point. The 50-state strategy is actually extremely well thought out and will be what we look back on as the deciding factor in this election. The Obama team has patience, and they've shown that they're willing to lose a little temporary ground in order to make it up and more in the long run. This is exactly what the 50-state strategy is. By nudging a strong Republican state just a tiny bit towards the Dems, it helps turn a neighboring purple state blue. See, people on the border of another state have much more in common with those people than they often do with people in their own state hundreds of miles away. So while it LOOKS like he's wasting resources, he's actually developing a strategy that looks at the country in terms of communities and pockets of people. This is enough to tip the balance in his favor.

mike volpe said...

You'll have to give me an example of a state. Obama has all but abandoned his 50 state strategy. I know of no neighboring states are turing blue. I do know that he is struggling in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Minnesota, and he might even have trouble in New Jersey and New York. Montana, and all states surrounding it, have turned off on Obama because of guns. The south is not his territory. States like Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada were always in play and I wouldn't count them as part of some sort of fifty state strategy. In my opinion, there will be no surprise state to fall to Democrats on the fourth. That makes his strategy a failure.