What’s Behind Obama’s Surge?

Politics, Presidential Elections, Uncategorized, US Economy, US Elections, US Politics

Nimh makes an excellent point about the often overlooked impact of plain old prosaic advertising on poll numbers.



While I agree that advertising dollars are important (and adore the graphs!), the post got me thinking about some of the other factors involved in Obama’s surge. Advertising is an underestimated piece of the puzzle, but still just one piece of the puzzle. So here are some of the other elements that I think are at play:

Obama’s 50-State Strategy

This has a lot to do with the Obama campaign’s relatively large advertising budget — but it’s not just about advertising. Obama’s been spreading McCain very thin in many different ways, as McCain has to spend time and resources defending red states, rather than being able to focus on battleground states. The thinner things are spread, the less McCain is able to campaign effectively (not just advertising but field offices, rallies, paid staff, etc.).

Obama’s Decision to Forgo Public Financing

The fact that Obama can carry out this 50-state strategy has a lot to do with his decision to turn down public financing. It was a dangerous decision — I had mixed feelings at the time while agreeing that it was the right decision. Even with the RNC chipping in, Obama has a fund-raising advantage that allows him to be very aggressive in terms of campaign strategy.

Obama’s Unprecedented Network of Small Donors

Obama was able to turn down public financing — and know that he’d be able to raise more than McCain, who did accept public financing — because of the amazingly huge network of small donors that his campaign had amassed. That was an early strategy and success that led directly to the previous two factors.

Late Deciders

In this post, I talked about how many people decide who to vote for late in the game, and that a) about a third of total voters do not vote in the primaries, so only make their decision near election day, and b) when voters look more closely at Obama, he tends to benefit.

Passing the Commander-in-Chief Test

Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan at their debate, 1980

Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan at their debate, 1980

As in this election (and every election!), Reagan’s win in 1980 had many components. But a major one was his performance in the debate against Jimmy Carter (there was only one). People became comfortable with the idea of this good-looking, smooth-talking actor being their president. He seemed to belong on that stage with Carter — he didn’t seem out of his element. He was knowledgeable, confident, assertive.

I think Obama has had to pass a similar test. From the funny name to the rock star rep, people have had to get comfortable with the idea of Obama Actually Becoming President. The debates have really helped him there, which seems reflected in polling data. Each debate has resulted in a greater advantage to Obama (or Biden) than pundits predict right after the debate is finished.

The Economy

This was always McCain’s weakness, both personally ( “The issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should“) and in terms of his party affiliation and ties to George Bush. Obama’s surge in the polls is closely tied, temporally, to the problems the economy has been having. This is an immediate, scary issue, something that really hits people where they live.

McCain’s Selection of Sarah Palin as Vice President

He definitely won some supporters with this selection, and undoubtedly created an infusion of enthusiasm for and interest in his campaign. It wasn’t all downside.

But there was a two-pronged negative effect; one immediate, as some of McCain’s more moderate supporters were turned off by his choice, and one longer-term, as people who were predisposed to like Palin became appalled by her disastrous interviews and apparent lack of qualification for the office.

Obama’s Superior Ground Game

This is I think the single biggest component. Again and again I have read accounts of how amazing Obama’s ground game is, and how sparse, absent, and/or clueless McCain’s is in comparison. For example, here is Sean Quinn of FiveThirtyEight.com, who has been traveling around America observing both McCain and Obama’s campaigns:

Let’s be clear. We’ve observed no comparison between these ground campaigns. To begin with, there’s a 4-1 ratio of offices in most states. We walk into McCain offices to find them closed, empty, one person, two people, sometimes three people making calls. Many times one person is calling while the other small clutch of volunteers are chatting amongst themselves. In one state, McCain’s state field director sat in one of these offices and, sotto voce, complained to us that only one man was making calls while the others were talking to each other about how much they didn’t like Obama, which was true. But the field director made no effort to change this. This was the state field director.


You could take every McCain volunteer we’ve seen doing actual work in the entire trip, over six states, and it would add up to the same as Obama’s single Thornton, CO office. Or his single Durango, CO office. These ground campaigns bear no relationship to each other.

If Obama wins, I think that’s what the postmortems will focus on. McCain’s campaign shows many of the same weaknesses as Hillary’s, especially infighting and an unwillingness or inability for the person at the top to step in and take control. (I have another blog post brewing where I go into this in more detail.)

Obama has shown throughout this campaign that he has a solid long-term strategy in place, and I think that more than anything else his current poll numbers reflect the success of that strategy. Advertising is a part of it, to be sure, but only a part.

The economic issues we are now facing were probably not part of the strategy except in the abstract (as in, Obama recognized that the economy was in trouble and has been addressing that for a long time, but I don’t think he predicted that the specific failure would happen at the specific time that it did) and undoubtedly account for another chunk of Obama’s current lead in the polls. Other unexpected events could still change the game in the 25 days we have left before the election.

McCain’s reliance on negative campaigning is most likely expected, and I see signs that the Obama campaign has a strategy in place to deal with that, such as the idea, repeated by both Obama and Biden, that if McCain has something negative to say he should say it to Obama’s face. This forces either a showdown at the last debate (which is likely to benefit Obama more than McCain) or makes McCain look weak if he refuses to take up the challenge.

Nonetheless, the barrage of negativity may well bring Obama’s current poll numbers down a bit.

Overall though, things are looking pretty good, and I think an event outside of the two campaigns’ current strategies is necessary to really change the trajectory.

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