By Amy Sullivan
On election day, with nothing left to do but wait for results, Obama pollster Joel Benenson spoke with TIME's Amy Sullivan. The former reporter turned numbers man talked about how the Obama team developed its strategy for taking on John McCain, how Obama managed to sustain a consistent message for the duration of the race and why the Obama campaign resisted calls to aggressively woo Hillary Clinton voters. Here's Benenson's inside take on how Obama won:
On the effort to define John McCain:
One of the things that struck us as we entered the general election was that two pieces of conventional wisdom had been stood on their heads. The first was that Barack Obama actually had a much better defined image with voters than John McCain did, especially on key attributes related to bringing about change in Washington: he had a 13-point advantage on "would stand up to special interests," a 12-point edge on whether he could "change partisan politics," a 26-point advantage on "would stand up for the middle class."
For McCain, the biography metrics were very strong--people thought he was tough, thought he was ready to be Commander in Chief. But beyond that, voters really didn't have an image of him as this fiercely independent maverick. I don't think we thought the general election would be anything other than "change vs. more of the same."
We didn't think it was that complicated. We were running against somebody who wanted to continue George Bush's economic policies, Bush's policy in Iraq, the same tax policies. Among the élites, he had an image of being this independent, but among the public he was just another Republican politician.
This is a guy who said, "The press corps is my base," and I think it was. He didn't get that he wasn't defined. You gotta be consistent. You gotta reinforce what you stand for. But through his campaign policies, McCain was reinforcing that he was more of the same. That "Miss Congeniality" line--what did that mean to voters? It didn't mean that he fundamentally disagreed with the ideology of George Bush.
On winning over Hillary Clinton's supporters:
The second piece of conventional wisdom that was completely wrong was which groups we would be strong with. The notion that voters who supported Senator Clinton would vote Republican in the general election was never supported by what we saw in our polling. At the beginning of June, going into the general election, Obama had a double-digit lead in our battleground poll against McCain among women. He was competitive among Catholics and led 2 to 1 among Latinos.
The press corps had focused on all these groups in the last three months of the primary and was convinced that they would pose problems for us in the general. But that just wasn't true, and we recognized that early on. As a result, we were able to focus on swing voters instead of worrying about parts of the base that were already with us. We looked at groups where Obama could make gains and at places where he could broaden the map.
On the value of consistency for a campaign:
When you go from a primary to a general, you say, "We know what worked in the primary. Will it work in a general election?" There was a nuanced change that we made in our slogan, right before the convention--from "Change you can believe in" to "Change we need." But other than that, our message stayed very consistent.
There was a moment, before the conventions, when it definitely seemed like McCain's campaign was gearing up to drive home a message about shaking up Washington. They put out an ad that said he was called "the original maverick." But once they got out of their convention, they really stopped driving that message and instead went on the attack in a way that was undermining the image of change that McCain was trying to drive. You can't send mixed messages out to the electorate.
On the ultimate meaning of the 2008 election:
Any candidate for President has to clear a Commander in Chief threshold on whether they have the judgment and readiness to lead. But we believed from the start that the economy would trump issues. We saw continually that voters really were focused on wanting long-term solutions. Senator Obama immediately opposed the gas-tax holiday because it was exactly the type of Washington [gimmick] he was saying wouldn't solve our problems.
This was not a small election. This was a big election. But McCain talked about earmarks instead of about changing the tax code. When the issue was energy independence, his focal point was drilling instead of getting us off this addiction to oil.
Barack Obama spoke to a kind of change that resonated with Americans. They have grown weary not just of the type of politics we've seen but also of how politics has gotten in the way of solving real problems. In this campaign, voters have always known the stakes were very high.