accountabilitybloke (old blog)

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Some thoughts on the 2008 election campaign….

There are all sorts of opinions about last night’s debate, strong on both sides. That is an indication of one thing: neither Obama nor McCain screwed up enough to warrant being declared the loser.

Which means that the campaign itself — rather than the debates — will likely be the determining factor. And from a political science point-of-view there is an interesting contest going on between two completely distinct strategies (and I don’t mean tactics).

It is always tough to simplify such things effectively, but I would articulate the contest as “ground game” versus “air war.” Neither camp is foolish enough to do one or the other exclusively, but they seem to be stressing different ones.

The air war strategy has dominated in presidential elections at least since 1968, and was nicely introduced to us via Joe McGinniss’ The Selling of the President. (For those who are fans of Mad Men, the seeds of this are dramatized in some early episodes in references to the 1960 election.) Nixon essentially turned over the campaign to PR professionals (Haldeman and Erlichman being the most famous). Political scientist Darrell West has written THE BOOK on political air wars, and it is certainly the focus of most punditry as folks scrutinize each and every advert that is posted by the campaigns.

The ground game approach is the more traditional — some would say anachronistic — campaign strategy. It is the door-to-door, precinct level strategy that was the rationale and cause of forming political party organizations. It is alive and well at the local level (e.g., here and here), and in some communities is the only way to win office. It relies on the same logic as community organizing (of the Saul Alinsky type; here and here), and many would argue is irrelevant above the local level in a political age where mass media has become the major form of electioneering.

This is not to say that the ground game has been completely ineffective in national campaigns. If Karl Rove was (is) the master of anything, it is the ability to combine the two, using air wars for the general or regional campaigning and ground wars (usually via the fundamentalist right) in specific locales. The Democrats never quite got that mix right (e.g., Florida in 2000, Ohio in 2004) — at least until now.

What seems unique about the Obama campaign is that it is emphasizing a ground game strategy while giving the air wars their due. At the outset of the primary season this paid off grandly with the key victory in the Iowa caucuses (which is ready made for community organizing), but New Hampshire demonstrated that they had not really developed their air war tactics. What was evident in NH (where I work) was that support for Obama was palpable, but it turned out that the air war campaigning of Clinton (and perhaps the Wilder-Bradley effect) trumped hard street-level work. (Interestingly, it was an effective ground game by McCain in New Hampshire that got him back in the race — but you get the impression that approach was abandoned once the primary battles became regional and national….)

In hindsight, the extended primary contest on the Democratic side proved beneficial to Obama in two ways. First, it fostered the development of the ground game infrastructure in places where the campaign might otherwise not have gone were it not for the stubborn, stick-to-it-iveness of Clinton. But it also taught them a good deal about conducting air wars.

The McCain campaign, in contrast, has been turned over to the air war experts — the Rovians-sans-Karl (or maybe not). But there is no outward evidence that Rove’s warriors have been paying attention to the ground game in any particular state. It could be that they are in fact doing so — it wasn’t really clear what Rove and his colleagues were up to in 2000 and 2004 until late in the campaign. It might also be the case that the Obama ground game tactics — enhancing pro-Democratic registration while establishing cavassing machinery at the local level — are so effective that they have posed too great a challenge to the GOP ground game in key locations.

And this is where the money comes in — and why it was worth it to Obama to take the reputational hit when backing out of public financing and to sustain the fund-raising efforts (to the point of annoyance in some cases).

With the limited resources that come with public financing, more radical choices about where to invest campaign energy have to be made. If you think you have a particular state “in the bag”, then why waste money there — put the money into places where you might have a chance. Similarly, if you feel you are going to lose a state, why bother with it? Pretty simple and necessary way of thinking under conditions where money is scarce.

But what if you have the money and can pose a possible threat to the other candidate’s “in the bag” states by not letting up? This is Rovian approach to a certain extent, but the difference is that the Obama folks are not just posing an air war threat on McCain’s assumed “turf”; it looks like they are actually building and sustaining ground game organizations in places like Indiana, Idaho, etc. There is an interesting benefit to this approach. Under the air wars strategy, pulling out of a state essentially puts an end to any campaigning — you are there with media buys or you are not. But by investing early in a ground game, the campaign has a chance to “live on”. Once those organizations are in place, they become somewhat self-sustaining (they have a half-life, at least) even if financial support needs to be pulled out….

Now add to all that the brilliant use of the internet and email being made by the Obama campaign. This is turning out to be more than a fund raising, mailing-list approach. It is also more than merely a platform for launching air war advertisements. Rather, it seems to be extending the reach of the community organizing logic into an attentive (internet-obsessed) demographic that enhances the ground game nationwide.

Given the racism factor in this election, Obama’s chances are really tied to the success of the ground game, and his ability to turn out enough new voters (among younger voters and African Americans) to offset that immovable political curse (we need another forty years in the desert for that to become irrelevant).

But win or lose, I think the lessons of this election campaigning season will linger on for quite awhile….

September 27th, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments