Book Reviews

Why Did Obama Win?

The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Message Shaped the 2008 Election
by Kate Kenski, Bruce W. Hardy, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson

Reviewed by Adam Fleisher

The Obama VictoryThe ruthless efficiency with which the Obama campaign dispatched the McCain-Palin ticket should put to rest the notion that our president is too disinterested in politics for his own good.

Granted, McCain stumbled by declaring in the midst of the economic collapse that “the fundamentals of our economy are sound” and further hobbled his campaign by choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. And Democrats went into the race with a substantial advantage thanks to the economic collapse, the unpopularity of the incumbent, and the larger number of identified Democratic voters.

However, according to The Obama Victory, Obama was able to exploit these vulnerabilities to a hilt by leveraging his tremendous financial advantage. The Obama team was able to tie McCain – who tried to present himself as the true agent of change – to Bush and by implication the economy. By Election Day, the Republican was seen as the candidate who would raise taxes, not to mention perpetuate war and the policies that brought down the economy.

The Obama Victory is a comprehensive study of how the messages of the campaigns, when married to money or highlighted by the media, influenced support for the candidates. The authors, relying primarily on a survey of more than 57,000 voters, analyze in exacting yet intriguing detail the effect of the candidates’ messages – expressed primarily in advertisements and the statements of the candidates, their surrogates, and spokespeople. Even though the authors cannot conclude that Obama’s disproportionate media expenditures determined his victory, they do show that efforts to persuade voters worked, as evidenced by shifting perceptions of, for example, the candidates’ ability to handle the economic crisis and their readiness to lead the country.

For all the talk of hope and change, the 2008 campaign was fairly straightforward. Race didn’t play a huge part in general election messaging; while the McCain campaign itself made a conscious decision to not exploit the Reverend Wright controversy, some 527s and PACs were less reticent. The best the authors have to offer is that McCain’s commercials mocking Obama as “the one” were, according to Washington insiders like David Gergen, racially-tinged innuendos that Obama was “uppity.” Iraq, which was significantly calmer than it had been during the 2004 race, also did not feature prominently in the campaign. The authors instead focused on the messages that dominated communication efforts and news coverage: mainly economic policy (read taxes) and the perceived capacities of the candidates to be president, with one too old and the other too green (according to their respective opponents).

Obama “repeatedly declared that 95 percent of Americans would see a tax cut,” while his campaign advertisements hit McCain hard, if not entirely accurately, for proposing a health care plan that would raise taxes on most Americans. In the final stretch, Obama was able to fund minute and two-minute ads that portrayed him as a trustworthy and viable president. Opting out of public financing – in spite of a promise not to – was such a huge advantage that the authors doubt any candidate will ever again accept public financing. The authors explain the final divergence in the polls in the waning days of the campaign as the result of Obama’s “rhetoric of reassurance.”

In contrast, McCain couldn’t establish that Obama was “not ready to lead,” lacking money to put behind the message and losing to press coverage of the economic crisis. The closest McCain came to turning the tide was after Obama’s infamous comments to “Joe the Plumber” about sharing the wealth, but again, McCain lacked the money. Furthermore, Palin acted as a “net drag.” McCain did have to neutralize the perception that he was too old and out of touch and repudiate concerns – whether fair or not – for his longevity. But Palin’s lack of experience only made McCain’s age more salient. The authors offer a detached analysis, noting that getting up to speed to become a skilled national candidate for office had taken “the skillful Obama more than a year,” while Palin was asked to do it in 10 weeks. While her acceptance speech at the Republican convention “increased the perception that she was ready to be president,” she never approached Biden’s perceived readiness amongst surveyed voters and as a result she failed to help the ticket draw in the Democratic and independent votes it needed.

Biden, by contrast, was a successful pick. At the time, Obama was struggling to distance himself from McCain, and so he took the calculated risk of muddying the underlying theme of his campaign in order to protect his candidacy from concerns about his lack of experience, particularly in foreign affairs.  As the authors point out, David Axelrod observed that “Barack Obama was more than enough change for people.” The poignancy of that statement will probably resonate for years, but The Obama Victory authoritatively demonstrates that during the campaign at least, Obama effectively presented himself to the American public as somebody entirely new on the political scene, and yet comfortingly familiar.

Excerpt: “As the election drew to a close, the Democrats added general exhortations, multiple types of reassurance, and sustained national advertising to their menu.  The exhortation took the form of enjoinders evoking common purpose and telling voters, ‘We can choose hope over fear and unity over division.’  One important ad that we discussed in the last chapter reminded voters of Obama’s widespread appeal by using the endorsements by businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffett and former Secretary of State Colin Powell to tacitly undercut the Republicans’ attacks on the Democrat’s economic and military plans.  The use of longer-form advertising was a staple of Obama’s endgame.  On each day of the last week of the election, at a cost of just over $5 million, the tow-minute direct-to-camera ad titled ‘Defining Moment’ aired on national television.”

Further Reading: The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory by David Plouffe and The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election by Haynes Johnson and Dan Balz

Adam Fleisher is a law student at the University of Virginia.

*Photo courtesy The White House.