July 15, 2008

The Summer Campaign

After the American Century

The political campaign is in low gear as far as the public is concerned, but the candidates are hardly relaxing. Not only do McCain and Obama need to select their vice presidents, but they have a huge agenda to deal with. I can see at least these five major items:

(1) Organize a National Convention. This is far more that just providing hotels and meeting spaces for thousands of delegates and thousands more reporters, though that would be task enough. The whole multi-day event ideally should present a coherent message. An exciting line-up of speakers and inspirational short films need to be orchestrated, and the whole event should build up to a climactic speech by the candidate. That speech also has to be written, of course, and it needs to be new, not the primary stump speech on steroids.

(2) Prepare political commercials that are in harmony with that major speech - requires a decision about what should be the major themes of the campaign. Obama surely will choose to focus on the faltering economy and Iraq, a one-two punch that will be hard for McCain to beat. But McCain presumably will seek to make Iraq and national security his first issue. To a considerable degree, however, candidates need to feel the public pulse, to catch the mood of the electorate, and move from there toward the policy positions. Candidates usually cannot dictate to the electorate what the central issues ought to be, and while it may be easy to see what the central issues are, particular groups have other main concerns. Each side is surely polling frantically and trying out various ideas on focus groups. How much, and to whom, should each talk about Guantanamo? Abortion? Faith-based initiatives? Off-shore oil drilling? Gun control? Terrorism and National Security? NAFTA? Affirmative Action? The Supreme Court? Crime? Drugs?

(3) Each candidate must decide on an overall strategy, notably by choosing which states to focus on and which ones will be given up in advance. McCain is running more than 15 points behind in California polls, for example, so he will probably spend little time or money there. Obama is not as far behind in Texas, but he might decide to cede it McCain and focus on Florida, where the two are only a few points apart. Arguably, the choice of where to put the campaign time and money is the most important decision each has to make. Obviously, both will focus on Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, and Nevada. But in additional to such clear battleground states, should Obama make a major effort in North Carolina? Should McCain try to win New Jersey or Washington?

(4) Each campaign must also "brand" itself in a variety of ways, which include how the candidate dresses, what its buttons look like, how the home page is designed, what slogan is adopted, and even what the campaign song ought to be. FDR used "Happy Days Are Here Again" in the depths of the Depression. Bill Clinton selected the rock n roll song, "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow." By themselves, each of these matters might seem trivial, but in a well-organized campaign all the parts cohere to provide a penumbra of images and associations with a candidate. As an advertising or public relations executive knows, defining and implementing such a campaign takes talent and more time than either candidate really has to spend on it. Based on how they have done so far, one suspects rather strongly that Obama's team will do better at this than McCain's newly reorganized group.

(5) In the midst of all these things, both candidates need to keep appearing in the public eye, and continue to raise money for the fall campaign. Either of these, alone, could be a full-time job.

With all these things to do in only a few months, McCain and Obama must be grateful that they will fall completely out of the public limelight during the Olympic Games. No doubt each will pretend to go on vacation, but real time off is unlikely with all these tasks to complete. How well they prepare this work now will become clear immediately after the conventions. With little more than two months for the fall campaign, there will be little time to correct any miscalculations.