Interesting piece in the Guardian last week about the communications strategies employed by both camps in the US Presidential election. The race is a bit like the ‘top down’ versus ‘bottom up’ schools of thought at battle in the communications world, or as the Guardian describes it as the news cycle election versus the field operation.

In terms of the top down approach, the McCain-Palin camp is setting out to win as many news cycles as possible. Michael Tomasky points out in the Guardian that:

The McCain campaign is the news-cycle campaign. It is built around its television advertisements and attention-getting claims made on the stump that are all about winning that day’s news cycle.

The basic idea is, if you win enough news cycles, you’ve dominated the discourse, you’ve manipulated the news coverage, you’ve gotten your message out at the other fellow’s expense, you’ve kept him on the defensive. Do all that and you’re going to win. Many of these advertisements and claims are contemptible lies. The nature of McCain’s campaign is all the more shameful considering that he’s doing many of the exact things that were done to him by George Bush’s campaign in 2000 -and employing some of the self-same people who did it to him to do it to Obama.

In terms of media relations, the McCain-Palin camp deserve serious plaudits for how they handled the timing of the announcement of Palin’s selection as the nominee for vice president. Tomasky writes:

The news-cycle uber-stroke of the McCain campaign was to announce Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential choice the day after the Democratic convention concluded. Obama had given his well-received speech before 84,000 fans the night before. In previous elections, he would have been able to ride that momentum for a few days. But the McCain camp cut it off utterly. It helped also that no one knew the first thing about Palin. So the American cable news channels that Friday and most of that weekend were about “Who is Sarah Palin?” rather than being about “Obama rides wave, McCain’s turn next.”

In comparison the Obama-Biden camp has invested a lot of their efforts in building their field operation, which Tomasky outlines in his article. They argue that they are drawing out people who do not traditionally vote and also try to tap into word-of-mouth, instead of focusing on a highly visible media campaign like McCain.

In this context it is interesting to note that despite the hullabaloo that has accompanied Palin, Barack Obama has broken his previous fundraising record. The Times reports that “Barack Obama pulled in $66 million last month, smashing his previous fundraising record amid clear signs that Sarah Palin has mobilised many grassroots Democrats against her as much as she has energised the Republican Party.

In my opinion Barack Obama faces a problem. He has galvanised the support of millions of new voters on the promise of change. If Barack Obama and John McCain were brands, Obama would be Abercrombie & Fitch to McCain’s Gap. However Obama leaves himself open to the accusation of being all style, but no substance.

While Obama has built this fantastic communications platform on change, he hasn’t set out any specifics as to what it actually means. As a result voters are starting to get a little bored with him. It’s like seeing an amazing ad and being thoroughly amused by it, but bored after the hundredth time of watching it.

On the other hand, while McCain doesn’t have much of a brand to work with (but Palin has alleviated this problem slightly by freshing up his image), his campaign team have down a brilliant job of mapping out a communications roadmap, which is clearly illustrated by the timing of the Palin announcement. What this means is that they have identified a series of milestones to use in order to dominate the news cycle as Tomasky outlines in the Guardian. While McCain doesn’t have the catchy jingle, his campaign remains fresh as his camp constantly has something new to talk about. While I wouldn’t condone or agree with the suggestions of sexism that the McCain camp introduced to the campaign last week, again you have to admire how fast his organisation have been to find a new talking point and leverage it to their advantage.

4 Responses to “Obama/McCain Race Offers Insight Into Changing Communications World”  

  1. 1 Richard Delevan

    Obviously McCain’s done such a good job on news cycle manipulation under Tomasky’s theory that he’s actually got you convinced on the “no substance” meme. Which is frustrating for Obama supporters because the converse is true. McCain and Palin have offered no policy prescriptions to deal with the financial crisis, want to do nothing about healthcare, embraces a suicidal status quo energy strategy and ideas on foreign policy far to the right of the Bush Administration.

    McCain’s speech at the RNC was biographical, Obama’s was laden with substance. Obama’s had a 20,000 word policy manifesto up on the website FOR A YEAR. McCain has switched any innovative positions to a default setting of continuing Bush policy.

    Yet even a smart guy like yourself is fooled. In the sense that the McCain campaign has resurrected what Mark Halperin labelled ‘the freak show’ a couple of years back, he has indeed ‘won’. There just won’t be much of a political culture left to govern.

    The irony will be, if McCain has won this many news cycles using blatant lies, and the traditional media no longer plays the role of arbiter (due to a collapse of confidence and influence) about political discourse, whether the backlash that has been swirling on op-ed pages, and spilled over to The View and Saturday Night Live, has any environment in which to get traction.

  2. 2 Piaras

    Slap on the wrist for me for not being overly familiar with the Obama campaign. Agree with you on the McCain campaign, lots of spin and subterfuge. Will be interesting to see how Troopergate, etc plays out.

    In terms of the difference between the two campaigns, fingers crossed Obama gets the vote in November. Even if he doesn’t the fact that he raised such a record amount last month, underlines the strength of the bottom up comms approach.

  3. 3 Roq

    “While Obama has built this fantastic communications platform on change, he hasn’t set out any specifics as to what it actually means.”

    I’m really tired of this meme. Please stop regurgitating it. I’m happy to offer that it may have been true at one point, but in response, the Obama campaign has long since spelled it all out in *excruciating* detail on their website, in countless interviews, essays and press releases. Way more than any presidential candidate in modern history, in fact. Generally, it’s considered foolish to get too specific, because circumstances may change by the time a candidate is elected, and that sets one up for being forced to go back on campaign promises. But the relentlessness of this meme, along with the newness/unfamiliarity (in some cases, prejudice and mistrust) has forced Obama’s hand. To say he hasn’t defined change or delivered detail and substance is simply not true.

    If you’re looking for a broader, macro take on the policy specifics of ‘change’ as Obama defines it – a creed, if you will – I suggest reading the Audacity of Hope.

    Thank you.

  1. 1 Voices without Votes » Global: Obama’s record-breaking fund raising effort

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