Jul 10, 2010

The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Message Shaped the 2008 Election

For those of us who survived the most expensive (and expansive) election in American history, and yet are still curious about its inner workings, comes The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Message Shaped the 2008 Election, by Kate Kenski, Bruce Hardy, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Pitched right between "interested layperson" and "studious academic," the book attempts to outline all the factors that led to the Illinois senator's triumph.

The book is well organized, first establishing the political and economic context, then tackling the campaign's overall themes, then showing the evolving discourse through five stages in the campaign (starting in June of '08), and analyzing the effects of early/absentee voting, microtargeting, and new media influences. There are charts and graphs aplenty, with attendant footnotes. The style is straightforward, peppered in places with folksy images that complement more analytical passages, and even including, at one point, an apology for employing terms of art like "explained variance." The book is at its most technical in the 12th chapter, which covers microtargeting (and features the work of co-author Chris Adasiewicz) and in the Appendix, which quantifies the nonstop nature of the campaign by calculating "delay effects" in media absorption.

Otherwise, when the amount of relevant information threatens to bog down the argument, the text is marked with an asterisk, which signals that the reader can visit the Annenberg Foundation's related blog for more information. (At this moment, it's unavailable; I presume more will be forthcoming when the book is officially released on July 15th.)

The book is evenhanded in its analysis, not shying away from discussing the missteps, deceptions, and evasions on both sides. It also puts to rest the myth that Obama's fundraising represented an unparalleled outpouring of support by individual donors.

While the authors present a compelling explanation for the outcome--within the understanding that, ultimately, the message-makers directly influence only a portion--more interesting to me are the little revelations along the way. How Obama's team used radio, of all things, to shift moderate women's belief about McCain's stance on abortion by 20 percentage points in four and a half months. How Sarah Palin, if the graphs don't lie, singlehandedly made it possible for a solid and stable majority of Republicans to believe that a woman was ready to be president. How the biggest "bounces" for candidates came after the most highly orchestrated moments: Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech on race, Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention. How "liberal" as an epithet has run its course, at least as a predictor of election outcomes.

Obama's defeat of Hillary Clinton (and the mythic Clinton machine) was more surprising, in my view, than his defeat of McCain--whose own campaign nearly flamed out in the primaries. Though mentioned obliquely or inferred at various points, the primaries' magnitude and key events are given short shrift; they deserve their own chapter in any subsequent edition. I'd also like to see a more thorough treatment of race in the election beyond the analysis of coded messages in campaign ads-- although that likely would've required an entirely different dataset, so I won't count that as a criticism.

It's to the authors' credit that the book spurs all sorts of questions:
  • Is there a better way to quantify the effects of factors like race and age?
  • How did rhetorical or speaking styles influence voters' perceptions of the candidates?
  • At what point does the nonstop campaign produce diminishing returns and trigger voter nausea or a sense of minimal personal impact? In other words, might the increasingly brutal election cycle somehow reduce democratic participation?
  • Is the media's sophistication in coverage growing beyond mere 3-D "situation room" wizardry?
  • How might the "Comedy Central bloc" swing future elections?
  • How can we more accurately assess the impact of social networks?
In the end, voters aren't perfectly rational. The trick, for electioneers, is managing, massaging, and channeling all that unreason into favorable votes.  In its comprehensive analysis, The Obama Victory draws up a template for electoral success in the era of the permanent election cycle.  Students of politics, take heed.

Sidebar: Readers further interested in the people behind the campaign should check out Kathleen Hall Jamieson's earlier companion piece, Electing the President, 2008: The Insiders' View.

Full disclosure: Oxford University Press sent me a free copy of the book for review. If you're interested in doing the same, just send me an email.

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