View from the Trenches:
Debriefing the Presidential Election


Mar|Apr 09 Contents
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“It’s a small fraternity of people who go through the ups and lows in politics,” said David Plouffe, the chief campaign manager for Barack Obama. “We appreciated being on the battlefield with you.”

Plouffe, joined by five other top strategists in the Obama-Biden campaign, was addressing five of his counterparts in the McCain-Palin campaign.

All 11 had gathered at the Annenberg School for Communication this past December for the 2008 Annenberg Election Debriefing, masterminded by Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) director and former Annenberg School dean Kathleen Hall Jamieson. For 7 1/2 hours, with only a 15-minute break for lunch, the panelists offered a potent blend of inside stories and reflections on the campaign. The atmosphere was generally collegial, with shared laughs, professions of mutual admiration, and only a couple of hints of resentment over perceived low blows. Their collective take will be published this summer in book format, with an accompanying DVD, by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
As was the case in 2000 and 2004, the debriefing enabled Penn undergrads in Communication 226 to “learn the ins and outs of this historic election firsthand,” said Jamieson, while APPC researchers “had the opportunity to test their scholarly accounts of the campaign against those of [Obama’s and McCain’s] consultants.”

Though each side had its full share of adversity, there was general agreement that the McCain campaign faced challenges that bordered on overwhelming. It emerged from its remarkable triumph in the primary election broke and saddled with a deeply unpopular presidential administration. Later, a collapsing national economy would take its toll. Add to that the realization that they were running against a “once-in-a-generation political talent” whose operation was “as flawless as a political campaign can be,” in the words of McCain senior adviser Steve Schmidt, and the odds were well-nigh insurmountable.

If the Obama campaign was “walking up a side of the mountain on paths,” Schimdt said, on the McCain side “you needed ropes and ice axes and any slip led to certain death.”

David Axelrod, Obama’s chief media advisor, began his talk with a memo he had sent to Obama in November 2006. “The most influential politician in 2008 won’t be on the ballot. His name is George W. Bush,” it began. “Rarely do voters look for a replica” of the retiring incumbent, Axelrod continued. “Instead they generally choose a remedy, selecting a candidate who will address the deficiencies of the outgoing president.”

As a result, “we felt strongly that Obama’s opportunity was that he represented the sharpest departure from George W. Bush,” Axelrod told the audience at Annenberg. “This was going to be an election about change. The people wanted a profound change.”

That held in the primary election as well as the general, he noted. “Senator Clinton is an extraordinarily bright, incredibly tenacious person, and a very, very tough opponent. But inexplicably, for much of her campaign, until the end, her campaign presented her as the consummate Washington insider and ran her as an ‘experience candidate,’ in an election that was plainly not about experience. That’s what gave us the opportunity to win in what was really an uphill fight.”

Given the leitmotif of change, the McCain campaign was also forced to distance itself “finally and completely from the [Bush] administration,” noted Schmidt, who made it clear that doing so was often painful. “For a number of us who worked for the president and were involved in the campaign, the fact that he had achieved record levels of unpopularity wasn’t a happy thing. Everyone had personal affection for the president.”

But, he added: “There are scores and scores of issues where John McCain and the president have differed over the years. We felt it was totally appropriate to talk about those differences and to talk about a different path.”

Not surprisingly, the Democratic side saw that Republican agonizing as an opportunity.

“We had this notion that for John McCain to become the nominee of the party, he would have to make a series of Faustian bargains” to keep disaffected conservatives in the fold, noted Axelrod. “Throughout the primary campaign, he was forced at times to defend his fealty to George Bush.” As a result, “there was a lot of tape of him talking about how he voted with President Bush 90 percent of the time, and that he couldn’t think of a major issue on which he had disagreement with Bush, and so on. We made good use of that tape.”

Iraq was the single issue that “most damaged Senator McCain in the early part of the campaign in the Republican primary,” Schmidt noted. “It did as much as any other issue to injure him politically and to diminish the difference in his brand, his difference from the president.” After McCain’s support of the surge strategy began to show positive results in the polls, however, Obama made his July trip to the Middle East and Europe.

“As he was moving through the world capitals,” Schmidt said, “Senator Obama looked as if he should be standing on the world stage. He looked like a president of the United States. Everything about him, from how articulate he is, to the eloquence and gracefulness of his physical movements: He looked tremendous.”

To counter, the McCain campaign came up with the “celebrity” ads “as a tactic to try to stay in the race and to say something about Senator Obama that would resonate with people and raise a doubt about the excesses of enthusiasm.”
To an extent, it worked.

“At every point in the campaign when it looked like we were getting too big for our britches, people threw us back,” said Axelrod. “I think there was a sense that Barack Obama had enormous potential but people weren’t sure whether he had earned this opportunity. They wanted him to prove it. They wanted him to earn it. They were going to make us jump through every hoop and over every hurdle. And I think that’s reasonable. I think they wanted to know that this guy was ready to be president of the United States.”

On the night that Obama secured the Democratic nomination, Schmidt recounted, McCain gave a “contrast speech” highlighting the two candidates’ differences. It turned out to be a “debacle,” he said. Not only were 900 people left outside the room, but “the backdrop [was] this terrible green color. It was a systems failure of epic proportion” that took “weeks to recover from.”

The McCain camp’s recognition of the steep odds against it was a big reason that it made the bold and risky decision to select Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential candidate.

“It’s always about risk and reward,” said Nicolle Wallace, another senior advisor to the McCain campaign. “In some ways we didn’t have a lot to lose. We were down nine points by the end of the [Democratic] convention. We needed a game-changer. I don’t know what other game-changer option there was for us.”

“Sarah Palin was the most popular governor in the country,” said Schmidt, laying out the rationale. “She had taken on her own party; she was a reformer; she had expertise on energy issues.” Given the fact that gas prices had reached $4 a gallon, he added, “that issue was very much alive as we made the VP selection.”

Without going into the details of the deliberations, Schmidt acknowledged that Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman had originally been high on McCain’s list of VP candidates. “It would have been an exciting and dynamic pick,” he added, one that “would have been electrifying to the broader electorate.”

But because of Lieberman’s relatively liberal record on some issues, “we would not have been able to get him nominated through the convention,” Schmidt said. “At a minimum, there would have been four states that would have nominated their own vice-presidential nominee.” And had there been a “floor fight at our convention which had the potential to knock all the speakers out of primetime,” he added, “it would have been a spectacle for the ages. We believe it would have blown up the Republican Party.”

“And we thought about it,” said Nicolle Wallace, sparking laughter on both sides.

And so began the process of selecting Palin—“like a whirlwind romance,” in Nicolle Wallace’s words—and preparing her for the crucible of the campaign. That process led to “the highest highs of the campaign for us, and some of the greatest challenges,” she added.

Wallace noted that Palin’s media encounters resulted in “some of the most wrenching news cycles for us,” and that the same “maverick” quality that appealed to their base was fraught with political danger.

“Her line—‘Pundits and reporters will say what they will. I’m not going to Washington to curry their good favor. I’m going to serve the American people’—in retrospect, that was like waving a red flag,” said Wallace. “We paid for that every day for the next 66 days.’” But, Wallace added, it also “cemented” her connection with her supporters.

Wallace and others in the McCain camp thought Palin acquitted herself well in her nomination speech, the vice-presidential debate, and her first couple of TV interviews. “Had energy prices remained the top domestic issue, it’s possible it could have turned out differently,” Wallace said. “But the arc of events took us to a global economic crisis. And the first time she was asked about it [in an interview with Katie Couric], she left an impression of not understanding the complexity of the bailout.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that as events changed they made her candidacy more challenging in some regards,” Wallace acknowledged. “But it’s hard to examine Curtain Number 2 or 3 and say that would have worked out so much better.”
“I do believe that Senator McCain could have had Hercules on the ticket and he probably would not have won,” said Mark Wallace, Nicolle’s husband and a former ambassador to the U.N., who led the effort to prepare Palin for the October vice-presidential debate. “And I think any attempt to portray that she somehow dragged Senator McCain down is inaccurate.”

Certainly, Palin helped the Republican ticket in the first weeks after the convention, tightening the race considerably.

Then, on September 15, “the global economic catastrophe begins,” Schmidt said, and McCain made his comment that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.”

“He made an inartful turn of phrase, and the Obama campaign was very good at capitalizing on mistakes,” said Schmidt. “We were running a campaign against a team that was very punishing, very unforgiving. When we made a mistake, they were all over it.”

When the first $700 billion bailout bill was proposed, and economic advisors in both parties argued for its immediate passage to prevent catastrophic economic collapse, not only did Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put the onus of the bill’s passage on McCain, but so did House Republicans and the White House, Schmidt recounted.

“The choices were: Do you return to Washington to try to affect the outcome, or stay outside of Washington and hope for the best?” said Schmidt. “We thought it was a terrible choice, but one made from a checkmated position. If the bill didn’t pass, and the global economy collapsed, it would be over.” McCain’s proposal for both candidates to suspend their campaigns in order to work on the bill was rebuffed by the Obama campaign.

“John’s never said this, but I believe if he were in the Senate, and not running for president, he would have forcefully said, ‘You can’t give $700 billion on three pages of paper,’” said William McInturff, McCain’s lead pollster. “He would have [brokered] a better deal and done it across the Senate. But you can’t risk that as a [presidential] candidate.”

At that point, both sides suggested, the race was all but over.
“First and most importantly,” said McInturff, “it fed into a narrative which is, That’s it. I’ve had it. The Republicans and George Bush have helped the rich. This doesn’t work. Everything’s broken.”

Another sort of financial crisis also hobbled McCain, who decided early on to accept federal campaign financing, which limits the amount of money at a campaign’s disposal and the way it can be spent.

“We didn’t spend a great deal of time discussing it,” said Schmidt. “Maybe we should have. I think we could have been more competitive if we had stayed out, but we still wouldn’t have raised as much as [the Obama camp] did.” That amount was “historic and staggering,” Schmidt added.

Consequently, the McCain campaign was forced to accept money from the Republican National Committee (RNC), compelling it to air “hybrid” ads that were often a mishmash of conflated and confusing messages.

Chris Mottola, McCain’s media consultant, described getting an email from a fellow Republican consultant advising him to put a message at the end saying, “If anyone has any idea what this spot is about, call 1-800-McCain-Palin.”

In one meeting, said Schmidt, somebody described watching the hybrid ads as “like watching a Fellini movie on acid.”

Under the constraints imposed by the rules for hybrid ads, he added, “I don’t care how talented you are, it’s very difficult to drive two messages, particularly when one of those is a generic one that has to be a Republican message. In the big structures at work in 2008, people were very angry at Republicans, and very open to Democrats across the board.”

While the Obama campaign had originally signaled that it would accept general funds from the Federal Election Commission, it made sure that it could withdraw if circumstances changed—which they did.

“We ended up with over three and a half million donors, [with an] average contribution under $90,” said Plouffe. Furthermore, “the decision was not about the amount of money, it was about control. We wanted to control all aspects of our campaign,” including advertising and the “hundreds of thousands of full-time volunteers.”

Had they accepted federal money, the Obama side also would not have had enough to campaign in some of the traditionally Republican states, noted Jim Margolis, a senior advisor to the Obama campaign. His team produced more than 400 ads and aired some 200 in the primary and general campaigns. They also produced a 30-minute paid infomercial that was watched by 35 million people, not counting Web viewers.

That complemented a formidable ground game that turned inexperienced volunteers into a tactical advantage. Carson estimated that “85 percent of the staff we had and 75 percent of the volunteers had never been involved in a campaign before.”

Plouffe described them as “validaters,” explaining: “If we’re going to win these Republican states, you have to persuade people who never voted for a Democrat before. A lot of that is peer pressure, frankly. And so we put a top premium on local volunteers talking to their neighbors [and] having those volunteers be up to date with what was going on.” At the end of the day, “the most effective thing someone was able to say at the door was why they were supporting Barack Obama. [What mattered] was the fact that that their neighbor was there saying, ‘This is OK, let’s vote for this guy.’”

Yet without Obama at the helm, Plouffe added, the race would have been far different. “He motivated people. I think we did some smart things, but it’s all bells and whistles without the candidate.”

“We found him unattackable,” said Nicolle Wallace—who had some sharp words for the news media in the age of blogs and Internet rumors. “The media has an impulse-control problem,” she said. “It can’t help itself from jumping on the most unseemly, unsubstantiated story.”

Anita Dunn, chief communications advisor to the Obama campaign, agreed with some of that critique, but observed that the media’s national narrative did not constitute the “real campaign.”

In a sense, noted Axelrod, the real narrative was about the shifting of the nation’s political tectonic plates.

“Along the way, it began to occur to me that, although people said this election was going to be like ’92, it was really like 1980,” he said. “It was not just the end of a presidency but the end of an era, an epoch in our politics.”—S.H.



Election 2008 from the inside

Staff cuts at Penn Museum

More proof on origin of Zeus worship

Wharton’s class on the crisis

Lies and their tellers


Orchestrating knowledge

Remembering John Pryor

Rethinking presidential rankings


Different tune in basketball


  ©2009 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 3/03/09