By Ben Goddard - 06/25/08 04:18 PM EDT
“Why would Barack Obama launch a network television campaign?” a longtime Republican operative asked me a few days ago. My flip response was “Because he can.”
But the question deserves a better answer. My friend remembered the last campaign to use such a strategy, that of then-President George H.W. Bush in 1992. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton opted for a media campaign based on the electoral map. Network TV buys have been discredited ever since, and many still believe the out-of-date Bush strategy was one of the reasons he served only one term.
Barack Obama is different, and not just because he can probably raise the money to do anything he wants. The biographical ad he is running in 18 states, many of them red states, is a well-done piece of positioning. Titled “The Country I Love,” the spot is simple and straightforward — nothing flashy here.
Visually, the mixed-race images of the young Obama with his white mother and grandparents go a long way toward making the case that he represents the American “melting pot.” The story he relates, of growing up with a single mother and his grandparents in “the Kansas heartland” learning traditional values, resonates strongly. It humanizes Obama and also inoculates him from some of the more vicious attacks that have been circulating on the Internet.
One of the first rules I learned in politics is that if you define the terms, you win the debate. If the Obama campaign allows John McCain to define him as an elite intellectual out of touch with American values and ill-prepared to be president, Obama starts in a deep hole. If, however, the campaign defines Obama as a real American success story, the child of a single mother who has succeeded despite very modest roots, he rises to stand toe to toe with McCain and debate the future direction of the country.
People need to be comfortable with who Obama is, and there is evidence that despite his meteoric rise in the past 18 months, voters still don’t know the guy. His rock-star stature on the campaign trail is fascinating, but also somewhat off-putting. We need to understand where he is coming from, and Obama’s campaign seems to get that.
But on network television? A medium that modern political strategy says has you talking to a vast audience that doesn’t care, many of them in states that will never go for any Democrat? Yes. If the campaign makes smart national buys for big events like the Olympics, they get to introduce their candidate to a huge audience in a very favorable environment. We’ll all be rooting for the home team during the August games, and such a buy will make Obama part of that shared national experience.
Before the twin circuses of the Olympic games and the national conventions, Obama has a chance to lay down a broad foundation of support, to define who he is rather than letting the television talking heads, the McCain campaign or the blogsters do it for him. “But so much waste,” political pundits will say. I don’t think so. As I’ve written here before, nothing is so powerful in politics as word of mouth. Television, still the major source of information even in the digital age, is a powerful way to seed that word of mouth.
I would expect to see the Obama campaign also using cable television to target specific audiences like young voters, African-American voters and Hispanic voters. The campaign has demonstrated its mastery of the new media; now it is showing the same ability to play smart with the not-so-new.
And, of course, the more Obama goes national, the more he forces McCain to spend limited resources defending his home turf. As I wrote here a few weeks ago, there are smart politicians in Arizona arguing that Obama could give McCain a run for his money in a state where the Republican nominee has not faced a tough campaign since his first run for Congress. If Obama can make McCain fight to get over 50 percent in Arizona, he can give him fits in states like Colorado, New Mexico, Missouri, Virginia and even Georgia.
Unlike Richard Nixon, whose foolish promise to campaign in all 50 states had him flying to Alaska on election eve, Obama doesn’t need to literally go everywhere. He has the money and the organization to fuel a truly national campaign on the ground, the Internet and, yes, even on national television. That means message dominance, and historically that has meant victory.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.