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Lessons Learned from the Election of 2008: Looking Back and Looking Forward

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Message Drew Westen

As the dust settles from the remarkable election of 2008 and the Obama transition is in full tilt, it is worth taking stock of lessons learned so they can inform not only campaigns that follow but the way Democrats and progressives pursue their legislative agendas.

From the standpoint of political scientists and their statistical models of electoral outcomes, the election was in the bag by the end of August, if not the end of June. My colleague at Emory, Alan Abramowitz, has developed one of the simplest and most powerful models, which predicted the popular vote within a percentage point or two (predicting roughly a 54 to 46 percent rout). In this model, every major factor that predicts electoral success--the popularity of the incumbent (the lowest in the history of Gallup polling), the state of the economy (measured in terms of gross domestic product), and "incumbent fatigue" (the same party had been in power for two terms) was running against John McCain. Other models from political science add the presence of an unpopular war--a fourth strike against McCain.

So perhaps we need look no further. All Democrats need to do is to wait until a corrupt, incompetent, reckless Republican President gets two chances to collaborate with an ideologically extreme Republican Congress and makes such a mess of the country and the world that even suburban white Republicans vote Democratic. But hopefully that will be a long wait.

Harnessing People and Technology

Two additional and interrelated factors not included in these models clearly stand out that reflect the particular skills of the Obama campaign and its chief architects: their extraordinary capacity to organize people and their equally extraordinary understanding of how to use cutting-edge technology.

In her speech to the Republican Convention, Sarah Palin mocked Obama's work history, suggesting that the difference between a community organizer and a small-town mayor was that a mayor has responsibilities. Today, I'm sure John McCain wished he had instead selected a community organizer for his running mate. Watching the Obama "ground game" in action--and the fact that the election was well on its way to over in many states with early voting days before November 4--reminded me of research on ant and bee colonies I had read in a college course on the evolutionary biology of social behavior. The trio of Obama, Axelrod, and Plouffe knew how to organize people in a way that makes Karl Rove's mobilization of ten million new voters (largely fundamentalist and evangelic Christians) that delivered Bush the presidency in 2004 look like a trial run.

Equally important was the fact that Obama was the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt (who used radio to reassure the American people and maintain a personal connection with them) to command a substantial technological advantage over his opponents. Ever since Eisenhower spent over a million dollars advertising on the newly emerging medium of television, Republicans have consistently had the edge on technology, including voter databases that were as essential to Bush's victory in 2004 as to Obama's in 2008. John McCain never learned to use that large system of tubes youngsters in their 50s and 60s know as the Internet, whereas the Obama campaign used new media to stay in constant contact with their supporters, to spread the word to potential supporters, and to amass huge sums of money that gave them the edge in voter mobilization and every form of campaign advertising.

Mobilizing Emotion: The Message and the Messenger

Yet none of these factors--the Bush legacy that bedeviled McCain, which he had to embrace to win his party's nomination but ultimately tightened like a noose around his political neck as November approached, or the Obama team's ability to mobilize people and technology--can explain what happened between mid August, when McCain had caught up to Obama in most polls (and early September, when McCain took his first clear lead) and November 4, when Obama achieved a decisive victory. Nor can these factors explain why Obama, who was steadily losing ground to Hillary Clinton from the summer of 2007 through early November of that year (when she broke 50% in the national polls among Democratic voters and seemed, according to many commentators, "inevitable"), suddenly took off after his speech at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa, which many observers described as a turning point in the Democratic nomination process.

To understand what happened in November and December of 2007 and again in September and October of 2008 requires an understanding of what ultimately moves voters: the emotions that motivate virtually all human behavior. In October of 2007, the Obama who had tried to win the traditional Democratic way--by focusing on the relative merits of his 10-point plans, using language that was often more nuanced than moving--was running neck-in-neck with John Edwards for second place. The reality is that there wasn't much difference between his 10-point plans and those of his rivals. But there was an enormous difference between him and his rivals when he chose to use it: a capacity to inspire that we see only four or five times a century in American history. In November of 2007, the Obama who had captured the imagination of the nation with his 2004 address to the Democratic Convention (and rekindled that imagination on a blustery day in Springfield in early 2007 with an awe-inspiring address announcing his candidacy for the Presidency) re-emerged at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa and never looked back. Obama found hope, and he began to inspire it again.

Although for months pundits continued to frame the race as a battle between Obama and "the Clintons," the reality was that it more like a contest between Bill Clinton (or JFK, or FDR) and Hillary Clinton--a candidate with an extraordinary capacity to inspire versus a candidate with many gifts except that one. No doubt, the capacity to organize and mobilize people was one of the decisive factors in the election of 2008. But that capacity itself was dependent upon not only the skills of the Obama team but upon the rare personal qualities of Obama himself. For the next several months, many political commentators called for Obama to move beyond his message of "change" and toward the approach to campaigning that has been the downfall of Democratic politicians for generations: peppering voters with facts, figures, and policy positions and assuming they will make a rational choice between bundles of plans. But we don't choose any of the important people in our lives that way, whether our spouses or our Presidents. Obama beat Hillary Clinton the same way he beat John McCain: by out-inspiring them, boxing them into the role of the candidate against hope, and defining himself as the candidate of change in a year in which Americans wanted nothing more desperately than to put our nation on a different track.

But hope and inspiration, by themselves, are not enough to win the White House. No one has ever won the presidency without making a case against his opponent, and no one has ever won who failed to address attacks from the other side (as Michael Dukakis and John Kerry would now be the first to acknowledge). As I argued in The Political Brain, Democrats' ambivalence about aggression has been as much their downfall in prior elections as their irrational commitment to rationality--their belief that good ideas sell themselves, irrespective of the way they are presented and by whom. If the Obama of November and December of 2007 began to channel voters' hopes, the Obama of September and October 2008 began to channel and address not only their hopes but their fears--about the economy, about John McCain, and ultimately about himself.

As an article in the New York Times put it in early September,


A new character is making a debut at Senator Barack Obama's campaign rallies: His name is John McCain. It began quietly on Monday in Michigan, but grew in volume as Mr. Obama made his way from Flint to Farmington Hills, carrying over to a speech on Tuesday morning in Ohio. By the time he arrived for an evening stop in the southwestern tip of Virginia, Mr. Obama's sales pitch contained nearly as many references to Senator McCain as to himself, suggesting how the McCain campaign has been driving the recent dialogue of the presidential race. "John McCain says he's about change, too--except for economic policy, health care policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy and Karl Rove-style politics," Mr. Obama told his supporters here.

By early September, the Obama campaign had discovered that hope--and even substance, of which he had provided plenty over the course of twenty-plus debates and hundreds of stump speeches--was not enough. The constant body shots from his opponent--that he was elitist, outside the mainstream, too full of himself (read: uppity), not really "one of us," the kind of guy who eats arugula and "pals around with terrorists" (whichever is worse)--had taken their toll, and although Obama had given Americans plenty of reasons to vote for him, he hadn't offered them any clear narrative about what would happen if they voted instead for McCain.

But in the closing eight weeks of the campaign, Obama controlled the four stories that matter most in an election: the story you tell about your yourself (that he was the candidate of change, fleshing out what he meant by change in his address at the Democratic Convention and in every major speech thereafter), the story you tell about your opponent (that he was four more years of Bush), the story the other candidate is telling about himself (McCain the maverick, which Obama countered by citing McCain's proclamation that he had voted with Bush over 90% of the time and parrying, "That's not a maverick, that's a sidekick"), and the stories McCain was telling about Obama (that he lacked the experience and judgment to lead, which events transpired to allow Obama to counter with the entire nation watching). Obama did it his way, not resorting to the kind of gutter politics he clearly abhorred, but laying out a coherent narrative about what a McCain presidency would mean to a nation that had endured eight years of George W. Bush.

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Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation."
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