Lessons From the Primary

McCain Can't Underestimate Obama's Money; Obama Can't Underestimate McCain's Tenacity

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Evan Tracey Evan Tracey
Now that the primaries are over it's time for the two remaining campaigns to reflect and decide what lessons should be carried over to the general election. Here is my take on the most important lessons to be learned.

The lesson for McCain: Obama's campaign will use its monetary advantage to stretch the playing field this fall.

The McCain campaign should study Obama's strategy in the Pennsylvania primary. Although the Obama campaign never came close to Senator Clinton's campaign in any of the Pennsylvania opinion polls, it did not hesitate to pour over $10 million in media buys into the state. While the strategy did not result in a victory in the state, it successfully drained Clinton's already fleeting resources. While the Clinton campaign was spending time and money on ads ($4.5m) to counter Obama in the Keystone State, Obama was also campaigning in the two states he really needed to win, Indiana and North Carolina. This tactic paid off: Clinton won Pennsylvania, lost in North Carolina, and only narrowly won Indiana, which ultimately sealed her fate.

In the general election, look for the Obama campaign to target states that it won't necessarily need to win. Because the McCain campaign will take the federal matching funds for the general election, Obama's cash advantage will be sizeable in the fall. If Obama can make the McCain campaign spend its limited money and time in a few of these states, it will take resources away from McCain's true must-win states. A few of these "trap" states could include Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona and even Mississippi.

In order to avoid the mistakes that could cost it victory in the fall, the McCain campaign will need to remain efficient and disciplined with media dollars and the candidate's time. This means resisting the temptation to chase the Obama buys into red states and holding fire until they see the "whites of the eyes," which is easier said than done.

The lesson for the Obama Campaign: Don't underestimate the McCain campaign or discount the candidate's powerful biography.

In the GOP primary, the McCain campaign was all but given up for dead by his opponents and the pundits. However, Team McCain was able to put together both a winning strategy and message. This winning strategy hinged on two very important elements. First, any candidate who wins the key states of New Hampshire and South Carolina has an advantage. Secondly, independent New Hampshire voters wanted to win the war in Iraq. The McCain campaign went out on limb, loaned itself money for media buys in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and while his opponents were collapsing, McCain's campaign was peaking. He used dramatic POW footage in his ads, stayed fully on message promising to "never surrender" in Iraq. The message connected not only with the voters in New Hampshire, but also in many other key battleground states.

The Obama campaign needs to remember that it is the Electoral College math and not the popular vote (see Al Gore 2000) that decides who will be the next president. As it did during the primaries, the McCain campaign will strategically plan exactly which electoral votes it needs to win, with little margin for error. Additionally, as McCain's message showed in the primary, Americans want to win the war in Iraq no matter how unpopular it is. McCain will continue to use this theme to pound away in the general election.

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Evan Tracey is the founder and chief operating officer of Campaign Media Analysis Group, a TNS Media Intelligence company. See his complete bio.