How Obama Won.
By Ryan Lizza
Last June, Joel Benenson, who was Barack Obama’s top pollster during his Presidential run, reported on the state of the campaign. His conclusions, summed up in a sixty-slide PowerPoint presentation, were revealed to a small group, including David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, and several media consultants, and, as it turned out, some of this research helped guide the campaign through the general election. The primaries were over, Hillary Clinton had conceded, and Obama had begun planning for a race against Senator John McCain.
There was good news and bad in Benenson’s presentation. Obama led John McCain, forty-nine per cent to forty-four per cent, among the voters most likely to go to the polls in November, but there was also a large group of what Benenson called “up-for-grabs” voters, or U.F.G.s, who favored McCain, forty-eight per cent to thirty-six per cent. The U.F.G.s were the key to the outcome; if the election had been held then, Obama would have probably lost.
Benenson, who is fifty-six, is bearded and volatile. He speaks with a New York accent, and in the movie version of the Obama campaign he might be played by Richard Lewis. He is considered the star pollster in the Democratic Party. Like several of Obama’s other top advisers—David Axelrod; Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois congressman who is his new chief of staff; Bill Burton, the campaign’s national press secretary—Benenson was deeply involved in helping Democrats win in the 2006 midterm elections, an experience that put the Obama team more in touch with the mood of the electorate going into 2008. (The top strategists for Clinton and McCain had not been involved in difficult races in 2006.)
The data from Benenson’s June presentation contained some reasons to be optimistic. The conventional wisdom was that Obama, as the newest of the candidates, had an image that was malleable and thus highly vulnerable to negative attacks. But that was not what the polling showed. As the presentation explained, “Obama’s image is considerably better defined than McCain’s, even on attributes at the core of McCain’s reputation,” such as “stands up to lobbyists and special interests,” “puts partisan politics aside to get things done,” and “tells people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.”
For Obama aides, who viewed McCain as the one Republican with the potential to steal the anti-Washington bona fides of their candidate, Benenson’s polling was revelatory. “Voters actually did not know as much as I think the press corps thought they did about John McCain,” Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Obama, told me. “What they’d heard about McCain most recently, and certainly during the primary process, was that he was like every other Republican—fighting to sound more like George Bush.” Benenson said, “What we knew at the start of the campaign was that the notion of John McCain as a change agent and independent voice didn’t exist anywhere outside the Beltway.”
Another finding from this initial poll had clear strategic implications: the economy concerned the U.F.G.s more than any other issue, and on that question neither candidate showed particular strength. In addition, the U.F.G.s were fed up with Washington and, especially, with George W. Bush. Based on those insights, Benenson came up with some recommendations, among them “Own the economy” and “Maintain an emphasis on changing Washington.”
As a practical matter, this meant that, after the Democratic National Convention, in Denver, the campaign would do all that it could to focus attention on economic matters. It had no idea, of course, how fully both the economy and John McCain would coöperate with that goal.
There was an almost obsessive singularity in the way that Obama and his chief strategists—Axelrod and David Plouffe, the campaign’s manager—saw the contest. In their tactical view, all that was wrong with the United States could be summarized in one word: Bush. The clear alternative, then, was not so much a Democrat or a liberal as it was anyone who could credibly define himself as “not Bush.” Axelrod had a phrase that he often used to describe this approach: America was looking for “the remedy, not the replica.” The appeal of the strategy was that, with only minor alterations, it could work in the primaries as well as in the general election, and that, in turn, allowed Obama to finesse the perpetual problem of Presidential politics: having one message to win over a party’s most ardent supporters and another when trying to capture independents and U.F.G.s—the voters who decide a general election. Experience? That was George W. Bush. Hillary Clinton? She could be portrayed as polarizing and as a Washington insider—just like Bush. When Obama gave economic speeches during the primaries and caucuses—which continued over five months, in fifty-five states and territories—he lumped together the Clinton and Bush years as one long period of decline. And John McCain? Four more years of Bush, of “the same.”
“We were fortunate,” Anita Dunn said. Both Clinton and McCain were “Washington insiders, people who for different reasons you could argue weren’t going to bring change.”
The incessant repetition of Obama’s change message had its drawbacks, though, and Benenson described to me the ongoing debate inside and outside the campaign about whether the candidate should move away from that theme—for instance, during the summer and fall of 2007, when Obama’s poll numbers in Iowa were stagnant. “We had people in Iowa in the summer of ’07 saying, ‘All we’re getting asked about is experience! We’ve got to have an answer on experience!’ ” Benenson recalled.