How Obama Killed 'Election Day' and Became President

Axelrod & Co. Understood Time Shifting and Consumer Control

By Published on .

Pete Snyder
Pete Snyder
There is no doubt that this year presented the toughest political climate for Republicans since Watergate; indeed, this campaign has been an uphill fight for John McCain or any GOP nominee. That said, Barack Obama, David Axelrod and their team deserve a huge amount of respect and credit for running a nearly flawless campaign.

They didn't fight today's war with yesterday's weapons and, most importantly, their campaign was based on a superior strategy. For the purposes of this column, let's forget about the issues, let's forget about the climate and let's ignore message for a moment. The simple fact is that Obama and his campaign chiefs understood two of the most significant (but little talked about) changes of this campaign cycle:
  1. The election timetable fundamentally shifted from being just about Election Day or even the last 72 hours (as was the rule of thumb for decades) to being decided as early as six weeks in advance.

  2. Due to the seismic changes in how voters get and process information that we marketers have seen for quite some time the voter, just like the consumer, is now in control and thus would be open to making his or her voting decisions earlier than ever.
Combined, these two critical assumptions turned D.C. conventional wisdom on its head and helped provide Obama with a major strategic advantage over McCain. Here's how:

Starting with Obama's huge upset in Iowa, the ensuing Hillary-Obama 50-state death match altered the rules of the game. Historically, a handful of early primary and caucus states would decide this thing in about 45 days (usually less than 1% of all voters in the country) and most Americans wouldn't feel compelled to engage until the fall. Instead, the clash of the Democrat titans drove millions of Americans to the polls because -- for the first time in a primary -- their vote actually could make a difference.

The Obama camp recognized that something very different was going on here. It threw out many of the old political adages and assumptions, including the granddaddy of them all, Americans don't tune into elections until after Labor Day. Obama's campaign geared its online and off-line engagement and advertising to build on this unprecedented early interest and mobilized it into an effective ground game to get out their vote.

While McCain came back from the dead after his campaign nearly went bankrupt and all of the pundits wrote him off, his path to the nomination was actually easier and wrapped up nearly three months before Obama crossed the magic delegate threshold. McCain rested, reshuffled his campaign staff, worked on replenishing his coffers and set his sights on the convention and the traditional post-Labor Day blitz.

Obama acted quite differently. Having opted-out of his promise to abide by campaign finance laws (which proved to be one of his shrewdest and smartest moves), he went for broke. His campaign started pouring millions of dollars into opening scores of campaign offices in all 50 states, many in areas that Democrats hadn't contested in decades. In the traditionally GOP-favoring Colorado, Obama set up 59 campaign offices to McCain's 13.

Why did he take this expensive gamble? Because of the internet and rise of social media, this was the first time where it actually made sense to run a 50-state campaign. In the past, each party would focus its efforts in getting out the vote in its respective solid "D" or solid "R" states and pour hundred of millions of dollars fighting it out over a handful of "battleground states."

This time around, everyone counted. And given the power of social media, everyone who has the interest has the ability to influence and mobilize networks of friends. A blue dot in a sea of red could now make a real impact, both vote-wise and dollar-wise, to a presidential campaign. Obama got this and McCain really didn't.
Pete Snyder is the founder and CEO of New Media Strategies. He also is a former GOP pollster and media consultant. Full-disclosure: He voted for McCain.

In an equally risky, yet ultimately effective move, Obama's campaign took to the airwaves during the summer months. Over the summer alone, Obama and the DNC outspent McCain and the GOP by nearly 10 to 1 in Virginia, a reliably red state in presidential elections since voting for Lyndon Johnson in '64. This strategy paid off by shaping early opinions (and thus, polls) about Obama, driving dollars and volunteers into his campaign and forcing McCain to spend precious resources in a state he expected to have in the GOP column.

More importantly, Obama realized that the defined "time" of the election timetable fundamentally changed. For decades, campaign models were built upon the premise that you raised all of your dollars and put all of your infrastructure -- including TV advertising and direct mail -- toward a call to action, driving turnout for 12 hours or so on Nov. 4. In 2000, Karl Rove swore that Republicans would never lose the ground game again after the Bush team took a lead into Election Day and were blindsided by the huge surge in voter turnout for Al Gore. Rove changed the election timetable from 12 hours to the last 72 hours, thus creating the effective and much heralded (or reviled, depending on where you sit) "72 hours program" that has dominated the efforts of both parties for the past three campaign cycles.

As we marketers understand, much has changed over the past six years in how consumers, let alone voters, gather and process information and then make decisions. Voters have more access to information and more touch-points and influencers in their lives than ever before. Oftentimes, this causes consumers and voters to make decisions on brands they like, products they want to buy or candidates they want to support much earlier than they did in years and decades past. The engagement and interest in Campaign 2008 never really subsided; it continued to grow. As a former pollster, across the board I saw the "undecideds" shrink much earlier than in past cycles. Voters were making up their minds earlier than in the past.

Virginia allowed early voting six weeks in advance. By the time Election Day actually rolled around, nearly 35% to 40% of the entire electorate of America had already voted. Because both consumers and voters are now in control, in many places there is no longer an Election Day. It's been replaced by "election month." Obama geared his campaign strategy around these two massive shifts and reaped the rewards. The coup de grace: When the global economic collapse hit over five weeks ago it stopped the clock for the media, making it virtually impossible for a competing story to garner any major attention, thus freezing McCain in time.

This is not to say that Obama and all of his advisers are geniuses and McCain and all of his campaign chieftains are incompetent. That is hardly the case. At times, McCain used brilliant tactics and knocked Obama off balance late in the summer and through the GOP convention. In a strategic sense, however, the McCain camp was out-thought and out-gunned. The campaign had no overarching narrative and was built on an outdated model. Indeed, it was much smaller than the man it attempted to represent.

The much-heralded 72-hour campaign is dead. Election Day is no longer. Voters, like consumers, are now in control.
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