Media Watch


Some political science scholars maintain that presidential campaigns are largely a waste of time and are predictable based on the public's view of the economy. While an annoyed public barraged by a seemingly endless stream of often ludicrous 30-second claims likely tends to agree, in her new book, How Barack Obama Won the U.S. Presidency, UA professor of communication Kate Kenski thoroughly details the process, much of which focuses on the important approaches used in what amount to being a multi-billion-dollar, multi-month media blitz in the quest for the nation's highest office.

"We interviewed over 57,000 people and were able to gauge where public opinion was at any point in the campaign," Kenski said. "We did ask all sorts of questions: Where were they getting their information? Did they turn to Facebook? When it came to early voting there was a relationship between people receiving an e-mail from the Obama campaign and casting a vote before Election Day. Those more modern ways of targeting a particular base really had a positive outcome for Obama."

In addition to a vast spending advantage, Kenski says Obama was able to pinpoint messages through a variety of platforms that consistently gave him the upper hand.

"Ultimately, the stars were aligned with whoever was going to be the Democratic nominee," Kenski said. "Some polls had (President) Bush's favorability ratings in the 20s, which is incredibly bad. When the economy doesn't do well people typically blame whichever party is in office. Those things made it so that it should have been a Democratic win in all the political science models, but had Obama not reminded people of those things through messages, the election would have been closer and perhaps (John) McCain would have won. Obama streamlined his message, focusing on change.

"The other thing he was able to do was effectively tie McCain to the Bush Administration. The reason why that is important is because of all the Republicans who could have won the nomination, McCain was the one who was the biggest threat to an Obama victory because McCain had made several breaks from Bush's line of thinking, various breaks the media highlighted. Out of all the candidates who looked like a different type of Republican, it was McCain. But through [capitalizing on] a few statements McCain made in the primary, Obama managed to ... reaffirm to the people the idea that if they voted for McCain, it would be the same as voting for a Bush third term."

The strategy involved in the political-message process sometimes feels as if the people crafting the sound bites take Silly Putty and throw it against a wall of catchphrases to see what sticks. Ultimately, Obama had more Silly Putty, or eight years of silly Bush-isms, to manipulate, but Kenski says the book's research shows McCain made headway on two occasions: because of Obama's stance on offshore drilling, and again over Obama's encounter with "Joe the Plumber," which helped to frame the final debate.

"That message about spreading the wealth is one that really did not sit well with the public, and McCain at that point finally found a message that could gain traction," Kenski said. "However, what the Obama campaign had done was already capitalize on early voting in a number of states, so by the time McCain finally finds a message, Obama has already managed to basically bank votes."

"It's important to note Election Day is no longer the day in which people cast their ballots. Election Day occurs for some people a month out, and that has strongly influenced how campaigns are conducted. A solid campaign is going to find what their message is, be consistent about that message, and get it out as soon as possible. If they think they're going to make a big push in October, it's most likely going to be too late."

To keep the pressure on, the Obama financial machine outspent McCain 2–1 in network broadcasting ads, 1.4–1 in cable and 4.8–1 in the undervalued venue of radio.

"The placement of ads on radio is under the radar of a number of scholars," Kenski said. "Musical tastes are often particular to someone's specific socio-demographic characteristics. If you want to effectively reach a very micro-targeted audience, the place to leave those messages is on radio. Because of the narrowcasting, you also have a greater chance of not mobilizing the other side. If I put a campaign message out on broadcast, whereas I might be able to mobilize a group of people who agree with me, I also have a chance of mobilizing that group of people who don't agree with me. An effective place to put your messages is on radio, where you're more likely to hit a group of people who agree with you, if that's your goal, and not mobilize the other side."

While it's not a focal point of the book, Kenski says it's clear Republicans are up to speed in the political marketing arena as they figure to make up significant ground in midterm elections.

"It appears Republicans have taken a page out of the Obama playbook," said Kenski. "An effective messenger is going to look at how people feel about the current situation, and then tie that current situation to the administration if things are not going well."

Co-authored by Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Bruce W. Hardy, How Barack Obama Won the U.S. Presidency is available at and the UA Bookstore.


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