One of the best aces in the hole for the Republican party has been their Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) operation. In 2004, I was working on a congressional race and the final weekend, an independent poll had the race tied but we lost by 8 points because the GOP deployed their famed 72-hour plan. Karl Rove had devised the 72-hour GOTV operation to make sure GOP voters got to the polls in critical swing districts. They made our GOTV efforts look like very amateurish as literally hundreds of GOP volunteers descended upon our district with state-of-the-art voter lists.
This morning’s Washington Post reports that the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee are putting less money into their GOTV efforts and using that money for a wave of final television ads aimed at late deciding voters. This decision may make sense for the McCain campaign: The only way they can win this is if virtually all the undecided voters break his way so raising doubts about Obama in the last weekend of the campaign is his only option. But, why would the RNC give up one of its strongest cards when it has House and Senate races on the ballot also?
I have always doubted the efficacy of television ads at the presidential level. There are so many ways to get independent information about the candidates, there is so much press coverage, the debates garnered a great deal of attention, people discuss the issues at the barber shop and in the grocery line. TiVo has even further diminished the reach of broadcast advertising. And, most ads run during local news programs, and those are the people who are most likely to be larger consumers of news and therefore have plenty of information about the candidates already.
Ads can accomplish some things. They can be used to fill in biographical details, which is one of the principal ways Obama has used them. They can be used to raise doubts about an opponent, which is the principal way the McCain camp has used them. Both tasks are better done earlier in the campaign.
The final weekend of the campaign is about building up enthusiasm among your supporters to make sure they get to the polls. That is why these huge Obama rallies bode so ill for McCain. The Obama campaign appears fired up. They have the most extensive GOTV organization in memory. And, in states with early voting, the people who attend the rallies go en masse to the local polls and cast their ballots.
One of the good things about our unnaturally long campaign process is that voters can tell how the candidate manages a large organization, what kind of strategic decisions they make, and how they implement those decisions. The McCain campaign has made a hash of some of its most important decisions from the vice-presidential selection to this latest decision to take resources away from the GOTV effort that they know has worked in the past. And the constant in-fighting within the McCain campaign continues to attract the press which loves to report on intramural warfare and prevents the campaign from getting its message out.
The Obama campaign, on the other hand, has been a model of strategic planning and execution. When was the last time you heard a story about in-fighting within the Obama camp? The emails and text messages from the campaign come regularly, advising people about how to register to vote, deadlines, upcoming events, etc. And the message of the campaign has been consistent across the long 18 months of Obama’s quest.
If the way you run a campaign tells us anything about how you will run the White House, Obama is looking better all the time.
Michael Sean Winters