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Nov 14 2008

Election analysis-7: The Obama campaign

While there may not have been much consistency in the McCain camp’s strategy, there was no doubt about Obama’s. Taking advantage of president Bush’s abysmal approval ratings, the Obama campaign steadily plugged away at hanging Bush around McCain’s neck. Bush has the unenviable record of being the most unpopular president in history. People were repeatedly reminded that Bush has been an awful president, who has got the nation stuck in two interminable wars while the economy soured, and that McCain represented a continuation of those policies while Obama represented a new direction.

While other issues have also been raised on the periphery, they have not been contradictory to the main message. Bush has been criticized for his tax cuts for the wealthy and McCain’s present support for those cuts has been used to tie him even more closely to Bush. McCain has been linked to Bush’s policies favoring big corporations. And who among us haven’t heard hundreds of times the repetition of McCain’s own proud statement from earlier days that he voted over 90% with Bush? We have also repeatedly seen the photos of Bush and McCain awkwardly embracing, with McCain in a subservient pose, further solidifying the image of McCain as a Bush acolyte.

McCain’s desperate need to try and remove the Bush albatross from around his neck can be seen in his statement in the last debate that he was not Bush and that if Obama wanted to run against Bush then he should have run in 2004. That was a good line that got appreciative laughter from the audience but it also was a reminder of how successful Obama was in linking McCain to Bush. McCain at one point even tried to argue that it was Obama who would represent a continuation of Bush’s policies, a truly pathetic attempt to separate himself from Bush.

McCain’s attempts to emerge from Bush’s shadow failed.

McCain has not been helped by his association with President Bush, the poll suggests. Fifty-four percent of voters think McCain would continue Mr. Bush’s policies, and the president is extremely unpopular: his approval rating now stands at 20 percent, the lowest ever recorded for a president. His disapproval rating of 72 percent matches his all-time high, first reached last month.

McCain gave the Obama camp some additional openings. By picking Sarah Palin to be his running mate without proper vetting, McCain opened himself up to the charge of being reckless with the nation’s security, lacking good judgment, and being impulsive. By ‘suspending’ his campaign during the financial crisis and even threatening to skip the first debate because of it, he opened himself to the charge of being erratic and incapable of keeping on top of multiple issues, and reinforced the image that he was impulsive.

All these things enabled the Obama campaign to raise questions about whether McCain had the required temperament for the office he was seeking. But unlike the changes in the McCain campaign strategy where new messages sometimes undercut the old, these multiple new charges against McCain could be layered on to the basic idea, without contradicting or distracting voters from the core message that McCain would represent a continuation of Bush’s policies.

The Obama campaign was not perfect. But they were steady. They seemed to have a carefully thought out plan and they stuck with it. Even in the immediate post-Palin period when they lost their lead in the polls, they did not seem to panic but simply rode out that setback.

One could see the organization early on in the primaries where they skillfully pulled out a win in the Iowa caucuses based on sheer organization and grass-roots effort, seriously denting Hillary Clinton’s image as the inevitable candidate. They stumbled badly in New Hampshire but learned enough from that to regroup and forge ahead.

Their success in winning the Democratic nomination was in carefully exploiting the delegate awarding rules for each state that were mostly based not on winner-take-all but on a district-by-district basis. By aiming to win even by a tiny amount all those districts which had an odd number of delegates, and avoiding big-margin defeats in districts that had an even number of delegates, they were able to rack up good delegate counts even when they were losing state voter totals overall.

Once they had the nomination, I think they realized that this was the Democratic Party’s election to lose. Bush and the Republicans were so unpopular, and the two wars and the sour economy were such millstones around that party’s neck, that as long as the Democrats stayed focused and calm did not make a big blunder, they would win. I think that the lack of traction of the Jeremiah Wright issue convinced the Obama camp long before the rest of us (including me) that race was going to be a relatively minor factor.

What was impressive about them was their message discipline. They stuck to their story whether the polls went up or down. In this they were aided by the fact that they kept the media focus on Obama and not on the campaign surrogates, and Obama is a very disciplined speaker. It was telling that even though I follow politics closely, and knew that Obama’s close campaign advisors and managers were David Plouffe and David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, I had never seen them on TV or in YouTube clips until election night and had no idea until then what they even looked like. In contrast, I had seen McCain’s campaign staff repeatedly all over the place.

The more surrogates that you have speaking for you, the more mistakes that get made and mixed messages that get sent and the public gets confused. The McCain campaign was overflowing with surrogates and pseudo-surrogates like Joe the Plumber and Tito the Builder, some of them saying outrageous things that drew attention to themselves rather than to the candidate they were supposed to be promoting.

It was after the selection of Joe Biden that the Democrats started going off-message since some media attention began to be focused on him. My impression of Biden is of a rather shallow man, someone who is not a deep thinker but wants to be thought of as profound and loves the sound of his own voice. Such people are liable to say stupid things in trying to impress audiences and this proved to be the case as he committed some gaffes here and there. But it was too late to help the McCain campaign. Compared to the Palin disaster, Biden, for all his faults, seemed like a brilliant choice.

POST SCRIPT: Mormons and California’s Proposition 8

California’s anti-gay proposition 8 passed due to support from blacks, Republicans, conservatives, and older people and Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons. A lot of the funding for the antigay effort came from the Mormons, even though most of them don’t even live in California.

This has aroused renewed interest in that religion and why they might hate gays so much. This article describes how the Mormon religion arose from the fertile imagination of a person who mixed together three elements that were intriguing the people of his time.

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