Election analysis-1: Campaign fortunes and campaign coverage

Now that the voting is over, I want to compare the way that the two campaigns were run.

Some years ago, I read an analysis that looked at media coverage of political campaigns. The analysis found that when reporters covered candidates who were leading in the polls, they would say that the operation was going smoothly, staffers were cheerful, with all the elements working in concert to provide a winning message.

But the reports of losing campaigns invariably found lots of missteps, gaffes, disunity among staffers, money woes, and lack of a consistent and coherent message.

What was interesting was that these reporters’ perceptions were mainly correlated with the candidate’s standing in the polls, not any real differences in the facts of the campaigns. So when a losing candidate started to get ahead in the polls, suddenly his or her campaign became the smooth one and the previously smooth winning campaign became the target of innuendo about all kinds of internal problems.

Part of the problem is that a candidate who is behind almost always has to adapt by changing the tone or content of the message and/or reorganizing the campaign staff. While this is a practical need (since there is no point in continuing a losing strategy), such measures can be unfairly portrayed as implying that the campaign lacks direction or coherence or is disunited or as even panicking. A winning campaign, by contrast, does not need to make any major changes and can thus be seen as steady and assured and united.

I think this analysis largely holds up, which is why one should not take at face value all the reports that have emerged during the last weeks of the campaign about the disarray in the McCain-Palin campaign. They were trailing in the polls most of the time and thus received the usual pattern of treatment.

But while all these reports of infighting can be ignored, there is one objective fact that cannot be denied and that is that McCain has been guilty of not having a coherent message and being too willing to switch from one issue to another as the main theme of its campaign. Now that it is over, with hindsight, we can see more clearly the arc of the campaign that we could only dimly glimpse while it was still going on.

The campaign first seemed to think that experience was the winning issue for McCain. They hammered home the idea that McCain was the seasoned hand while Obama was the new kid, still wet behind the ears and not yet ready for the responsibility of being president in these supposedly dangerous times. This had the advantage of making what might have been a negative (McCain’s age) correlate with a positive (age=experience).

They attempted to portray Obama as a lightweight and even an airhead, an elitist celebrity not to be trusted with the nation’s highest elected position. Recall in the early days the relentless hammering of him as someone famous for just being famous, whose only ability was giving good speeches, and not having any real achievements to his name. This campaign reached its apex with the advertisement juxtaposing Obama with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

Even Karl Rove got into the act and contributed to this image, famously saying: “Even if you never met [Obama], you know this guy. . . . He’s the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by.”

Rove did not seem to realize (or care) that the picture he painted tended to remind people of his own former boss George W. Bush rather than Obama. Also it was rather strange to accuse Obama, someone who had to struggle up from a tough childhood, of being a country-club elitist when McCain is one of the wealthiest people in the country, owning multiple expensive homes and cars. Rove was overreaching and this must have been due to overconfidence in his ability to remake an opponent’s image. After all, he managed to make John Kerry seem like a liar and coward about his Vietnam service while his own team of George Bush and Dick Cheney did everything they could to successfully avoid going to Vietnam.

Although the experience argument was not persuasive to me personally, I thought that it could well turn out to be a winning message. Ever since 2001, there has been a deliberate campaign to make people fearful for their safety in order to push through policies that would have never had a chance otherwise, and many people are still looking for a protective father figure to be the president. McCain fitted that persona better than Obama, especially early in the campaign. Even at the end of the campaign, when voters spoke positively about why they prefer McCain, they often brought up the experience factor.

Although a campaign focused on experience was not an exciting message and McCain is by no means a charismatic person, by relentlessly drumming that message of experience versus celebrity lightness, he steadily kept closing the gap, from the lowest point in his polling on June 29 when he was at 40% and 7 points behind Obama, to within just one or two points by the end of August. Things seemed to be going well.

Then he picked Sarah Palin to be his running mate

Next: The wheels come off the Straight Talk Express.

POST SCRIPT: Ballot issues

Sad to say, California’s proposition 8 denying gays the right to marry passed, as did other anti-gay measures in Florida, Arizona, and Arkansas. Although I am confident that full and equal rights for gays are inevitable, these results will set the achievement of that goal back by a few years.

The good news is that young people rejected the ban by margins of 2-1. This makes me hopeful that in the future such measures will be supported only by die-hard religious people, and they will not command a majority.

On the abortion front, South Dakota defeated the attempt to ban all abortions except in the case of rape or incest and Colorado defeated their anti-abortion initiative that sought to define a person to “include any human being from the moment of fertilization.” California’s attempt to limit abortion also seems likely to be defeated.

Meanwhile, the state of Washington allowed physician assisted suicide and Michigan approved the medical use of marijuana, both of which are positive steps.


  1. says

    Hi Mano,

    I recall that you quoted Twain’s “The War Prayer” on your blog awhile back. It also gets at the root of California’s Proposition 8.

    Except in this case the “worshipers” aren’t even getting the positive benefits they insist are at stake, like freedom of speech…


  2. says

    Nathan & the Cynic,

    Ok, I understand what happened. The guy misinterpreted the results. The Baltimore Sun reported correctly as follows:

    “Voters under 30 heavily opposed Proposition 8, while voters 65 and over supported the initiative.”

    But to vote against the measure was to support gay rights, and vice versa. He had got it backwards.

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