In the 2008 presidential election, Senator John McCain ran the better campaign.
This statement goes strongly against conventional wisdom. After all, President Barack Obama’s campaign is widely praised by the media for its masterful turn-out operation and other achievements. This is, of course, because Mr. Obama won the election. Winning candidates, by definition, are almost always considered to have run the better campaign. (Quick: name a losing politician who ran a better campaign than his opponent.)
In fact there were two things that propelled Mr. Obama to victory in 2008, and neither of them had to do with his campaign apparatus. The first was the political environment. Mr. Obama had the fortune of running after a two-term unpopular Republican administration. He did this, moreover, in the midst of a financial meltdown for which blame went to said administration. It’s hard to lose an election under those circumstances.
Secondly, Mr. Obama was a more attractive candidate than Mr. McCain. He was younger, he looked better on camera, he gave much better speeches. Mr. Obama had a magnetism that could attract crowds numbering greater than 100,000. His opponent simply didn’t have that.
But Mr. Obama’s campaign itself wasn’t actually that amazing. It was a fairly conservative operation that took things very safe. The campaign tried to be very cautious, avoiding any risky and exciting maneuvers. This happened under the principle that the senator probably was going to win anyways – so a boring, conventional campaign was much safer than a risky, unconventional one. It’s hard to fault his operation for this conclusion, because Mr. Obama did in fact win.
It was Senator John McCain’s campaign that took risks and made headlines. In many ways his campaign was better than Mr. Obama’s. It won more of the daily media battles until the financial crisis – and there was nothing it could really do about that. It ran better ads. How many Obama ads do you remember, for instance? What about McCain ads? I bet a lot of people remember this one.
Mr. McCain’s campaign also made the more memorable moves. It selected an unforgettable Vice Presidential nominee (in contrast, Mr. Obama once again took the safe route in picking Senator Joe Biden). It famously promised to suspend its campaign in the midst of the financial meltdown. Some of these moves worked; some of them didn’t. But they were very rational moves to take; there was simply no way Mr. McCain could have won in 2008 without taking enormous, risky gambles.
Mr. Obama’s campaign is widely credited for bringing many young and African-American voters to the polls who otherwise wouldn’t have shown up. But those voters came not because of the campaign, but because of Mr. Obama himself. If the entire campaign operation had remained the same, but Senator Barack Obama had been replaced by Senator John Kerry, how many of those people would have shown up?
The moral of this analysis is not to overrate the Obama campaign. There was a Democratic wave in 2008, and Mr. Obama’s campaign deserves credit for riding that wave with the help of a very gifted politician. But to say that “Obama put together one of the most impressive campaign operations of all time” is a big exaggeration.