In January 2007, Sen. Barack Obama announced his candidacy for President of the United States, embarking on what would be the longest Presidential campaign in history. As a little-known junior senator from Illinois, the campaign posed significant challenges. Sen. Hillary Clinton had also indicated her intention to run and was considered the prohibitive favorite. The Clintons were enormously popular with Democratic primary voters and Sen. Clinton brought more than a dozen years of Washington experience to the table.
Sen. Obama had captured the nation’s attention with his 2004 Keynote Address to the Democratic National Convention, and while the themes he laid out in that speech formed the foundation of his Presidential campaign, the campaign also employed an extensive research and polling plan that would give dimension to those themes in ways that made them consistently relevant and dynamic. In addition, research and polling were used to identify persuadable voters who would be most responsive to Senator Obama’s message. The Benenson Strategy Group, which was the lead polling firm during the general election, joined the campaign at the outset and played an integral role in using research to develop messaging that informed the advertising strategy as well as the campaign’s daily proactive and response messaging.
From the outset of the Obama campaign, the research team was committed to an iteractive approach based on a core set of principles that guided the multi-faceted research program (focus groups, extensive message polling, micro-targeting surveys and modeling, internet ad testing and dial groups).
The key principles that guided this approach were that we would build on what we learned; we would consistently challenge our own assumptions, and that we would use our research to unearth underlying attitudes and values that were shaping the mindset of voters even before we had communicated with them.
By probing deeply into these underlying but deeply held beliefs and attitudes, the Obama campaign was able to define a message of “change” in powerful ways that connected Sen. Obama’s personal qualities to his policies and to his overarching message. This messaging also set him apart as the only candidate who could truly represent the change that people wanted from the broken politics of Washington. At a time when other candidates were using harsh, partisan language to position themselves as ready to do battle with Republicans, our polling among Democratic primary voters revealed a strong desire for a candidate who would get past partisan divisions and work with others to get things done.
Extensive attribute testing and image mapping revealed that Sen. Obama’s most potent characteristics were his commitment to restoring our sense of common purpose, to put the needs of the middle class first and to tell people not just what they wanted to hear but what they needed to know. These powerful personal characteristics became the core pillars of the campaign, and messaging always linked Sen. Obama’s biography, record of accomplishments and proposals back to those qualities that most resonated with voters.
In the general election campaign, we conducted national polling in a sample comprised of the 15-22 battleground states, which allowed us to identify a key group of persuadable voters called “Up for Grabs.” The key to this group was that they were defined by four attitudinal and behavioral measures, which meant that targets within the group would evolve as the campaign went on. While initial targets were non-college educated, middle class white men and Independent men under 40, by the end of the campaign we were targeting rural, Independent middle-class women and young, affluent suburban parents.
BSG was also responsible for the near-daily message polling that helped the campaign plan communication strategy, rapid response messaging, media campaign and debate strategy.
President Obama won the election with 53 percent of the vote, more than any Democrat in nearly 50 years and the biggest margin for a non-incumbent Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.
Our initial vote model created in May called for a 53-47 electoral margin, proved extremely accurate, including projecting correctly the vote share goals for 10 key demographic groups. Moreover, President Obama won a larger share of male white voters (41 percent) than any Democratic president since Jimmy Carter. President Obama lived up to his promise of broadening the electoral map by carrying states such as North Carolina and Virginia that no Democrat had carried since 1964.
The Benenson Strategy Group was named 2008 Pollster of the Year by the American Association of Political Consultants for its work on the Obama campaign, marking the second time that the firm has won that award. The first time was for the firm's work in back to back victories for Tim Kaine for Governor of Virginia and Jim Webb's victory for U.S. Senate in 2006.