As the campaign for the 2008 Presidential election comes to a close, the entire country (if not the world) holds their breath to see who will emerge victorious. While the usual independent candidates pepper ballots in all fifty states, the race is clearly between Illinois Senator Barack Obama and Arizona Senator John McCain.
This race isn’t really between Obama and McCain, though. More than any other time in recent history, this election is a referendum on ideas. It’s an election between worldviews and beliefs. While it’s true that all major elections have a certain flavor of mudslinging and catchphrases that run the gamut, one party’s campaign strategy actually attempted to imply the other as unamerican and associated with terrorism. Finally, it’s an election between marketing strategies.
This election of ideas can best be summed down into a battle — not between good and evil — but between hope and fear. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with bitter emails and sanctified drivel from far-right groups, it’s obvious that some would like to have the “good versus evil” image stick to this year’s election. Thankfully, many American voters have seen through the schtick and looked at the issues to make their choice.
After sitting through both conventions, dozens of speeches and interviews, advertising ad nauseum, and commentators galore, the most simplistic way to describe each campaign is a single word. Obama’s message is one of hope. The McCain campaign is driven by fear.
If there’s any doubt to the fear label for the GOP message, then look no further than the vile robocalls. These robocalls were so bad that even fellow republicans cried foul. This little bit from ABC News is an example:
Embattled Republican Sen. Susan Collins is calling on Sen. John McCain to stop paying for automated phone calls which describe Sen. Barack Obama as having “worked closely” with “domestic terrorist Bill Ayers.”
“These kind of tactics have no place in Maine politics,” said Collins spokesperson Kevin Kelley. “Sen. Collins urges the McCain campaign to stop these calls immediately.”
The robocalls also claimed that Ayers’ group “killed Americans.” This statement is so far distorted from the truth that it’s barely recognizable. The only “Americans” that were killed were three members of the group who died during an accident while building a bomb. Those “Americans” essentially died from their own stupidity, not because of Ayers who was never even implicated in the incident. In a word, the calls were about fear.
But that’s not all. Even in her first speech as the Vice Presidential nominee, Governor Sarah Palin evoked terrorism. Earlier in October, her speeches were laced with the word “terrorist” or “terrorism” in almost every paragraph. All of this was in the name of fear.
When Focus on the Family released its “Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America” last week, it was a clear exercise in fear. This is the same message from evangelicals and conservatives from all across the country:
“Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
Some of us remember this as the words uttered by Geena Davis in the 1986 film “The Fly.” This is exactly the message that has been shouted from the rooftops all across the country regarding Barack Obama’s message of ‘Change we can believe in.” We should fear change, especially the kind of change that they believe Obama would (or could) bring. It’s a relentless, drumbeat of fear that’s intended to be driven to the hearts of voters everywhere.
Obama, on the other hand, has been equally consistent on his campaign of “change” and, more importantly, “hope.” It’s been a message that’s so consistent and so powerful that the McCain campaign is actually building their campaign in response to Obama’s.
One McCain ad was very transparent in its intent: “Don’t hope for a stronger America, vote for one.” It’s too little, too late. Sorry, Senator McCain, your entire campaign was built on fear. You can’t spread hope like a thin icing on a bitter cake of fear and lies.
I make no apologies for voting for Obama. In fact, I’m proud to have cast a vote for whom I believe will be the first African-American president in our country’s history. When it comes to a message of hope versus fear, I’ll take hope any day.
Obama’s message and campaign have been so effective, that the Republican message has been converted into a strategy that has lost every time it was attempted. “I’m not (the other guy).” In this case, it’s “I’m not Obama.”
But gosh darn it if they’re letting Obama set the tone for the entire campaign. The Illinois senator jumped out the gate with what this writer (who happens to be a graphic designer) believes is one of the most beautiful and effective campaign websites ever. McCain’s was mediocre by comparison. In fact, back in June, you’ll notice that the Republican’s website is just as slick and clean as the Obama site. Coincidence? Of course not. But then, some people called it a ripoff.
In fact, every time McCain opens his mouth, he has said “I’m not Obama” in so many ways that it’s pretty darn creative by this point. Even Obama’s “Hope” poster has been converted by republicans into a “Nope” poster. Sure, it’s creative, but it breaks one of the most important rule in marketing: Don’t advertise your competition.
This, in my opinion, is why the McCain campaign is losing, and why I believe that John McCain would not be a true leader – he’s too busy responding to what the opponent does. Just look at the McCain website. Once you get past the gorgeous opening page, you’re welcomed to the main page (with more Obama-like graphics). Once you get beyond the graphics, you realize that the content is pointing fingers as well.
One paragraph says “Instead of spreading wealth around, John McCain and Sarah Palin will spread opportunity.” Another paragraph says they don’t talk about change, they deliver. The reader actually has to scroll down to read their platform – which is, again, a comparison to the Obama plan.
On Obama’s site – it also has a splash page for donations, and then the next page is for the goods. Guess who’s name isn’t mentioned or even implied once? Yeah. That other one. In fact, you’ve got to dig around the site to find McCain’s name at all – and it’s on a page with more detailed issues.
From a marketing and advertising standpoint, the Obama camp has been solid and consistent from day one.
The McCain camp has even criticized the “slick marketing” from Obama and his supporters. As much as I hate to say it, that’s what will decide the election this year. In fact, it’s always been what decided presidential elections in the past. Who can forget “I Like Ike” fro 1952? Let’s explore the campaign strategies from 1980 on:
Ronald Reagan: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
Carter, 1980: According to C-Span, there was no memorable slogan.
Result: Reagan cracked the peanut.
Ronald Reagan: “It’s morning again in America” and “Reaganomics”
Walter Mondale: “America needs a change” (I’m not Reagan)
Result: Miraculously, Mondale carried Minnesota. Reagan won the other 49.
George H.W. Bush: “Read my lips, no new taxes.”
Michael Dukakis: “Don’t I look great in this tank?”
Result: We read Bush’s lips all the way to the White House.
George H.W. Bush: “Oh, those new taxes. But he’s a draft-dodger!” (I’m not Clinton!)
William Clinton: “It’s the economy, stupid.” The saxophone helped.
Ross Perot: “I’m a pain in both yer asses.”
Result: Clinton dodged a tycoon and beat an incumbent president to win.
William Clinton: “Building a bridge to the 21st century” and, “Monica who?”
Bob Dole: “The better man for a better America” (I’m not Clinton.)
Ross Perot: “It’s me again!”
Result: Clinton scrapes by, cigar and all.
George W. Bush: “Compassionate conservatism”
Al Gore Jr.: “Prosperity and progress,” and “I’m not Clinton.”
Result: Gore wins the popular vote, and Bush takes Florida after a month of recounts and court battles. The United States Supreme Court puts an end to the lawsuits, thus clearing the way for Bush to be inaugurated.
George W. Bush: “Yes America can!” and the unofficial, “Stay the course.”
John F. Kerry: “I have a plan” and, “Let America be America again” (I’m not Bush)
Result: Bush wins by a landslide since no one knew what the hell Kerry’s plan really was.
John McCain: “Country First” and “A leader we can believe in” (I’m not Obama)
Barack Obama: “Change we can believe in” and “Yes we can”
Result: we’ll find out on November 4th.
So which will it be? Hope versus fear? Change or more of the same? In the last 30 years, no campaign that has resorted to “I’m not the other guy” has ever won. It’ll be crazy night next Tuesday, but something tells me to bet on blue on this round.