What is dictating McCain’s media strategy?
In the advertising war waging across the water, John McCain is positively hammering Barack Obama. The Arizona Senator has ploughed significant money into attacking his counterpart from Illinois on a number of fronts; from his advice on inflating tyres to his ‘celebrity’ status, apparently comparable to that of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.
Two elements of his campaign’s assault on Obama have raised eyebrows. Firstly, why is McCain criticising Obama on such spurious grounds when Republicans feel they have a stronger case against ‘the most Liberal member of the Senate’? Secondly, why is McCain throwing money away on advertising so ‘early’ in the season, when he trails Obama in fundraising?
The second question is easier to answer: when McCain’s primary campaign was in dire straights, he applied for match-funding (public money) from the FEC. This comes with limits on expenditure – both for the primary (pre-convention) and General (post-Convention) elections. McCain’s suprise victory, and subsequent financial comfort, did not allow him to forgo the FEC funding which he had already used as collateral for bank loans. Consequently, McCain has more money than he will be allowed to spend after the GOP Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, so he decided to launch some of the more negative attacks at a point in time that will still be forgotten, and whilst he was still within primary election spending limits.
The issue of ‘why celebrity?’ is harder to answer definitively. Clearly there is an element to which it extends the ‘elitist’ tag, and gives it a new lease of life in view of Obama’s domination of the media coverage. For a candidate who has been called ‘too fit’ to be President of a country in the midst of an obesity epidemic, there may be a valid angle of attack that highlights the variance between Obama’s life and the lives of those he would represent. Yet, for conservative friends of mine, this is an empty swipe at a candidate that they feel has genuine flaws – inexperience, no voting record, views on abortion completely out of step with mainstream America. So why this particular line?
I think that it is mistaken to believe that the ‘celebrity’ adverts were aimed predominantly at the voting public. I think that the principle audience for McCain’s attacks were Davids Plouffe and Axelrod: Barack Obama’s campaign maestros.
McCain will have been worried by the early lead that Obama took upon winning the nomination, and was concerned by the effect that his overseas tour could have. Both candidates will get a bounce from their convention, but because the Democratic party goes first, Obama’s bounce will come from a higher base. There was a danger that his lead plus his bounce would leave McCain too far by the beginning of the GOP convention. If McCain falls too far behind, the RNC may choose to spend their money on defending Congressional seats, rather than a more expensive assured defeat in the run for the White House.
The McCain tactic prior to Labor Day has to be to keep the race close. That would be difficult if Obama was dominating media coverage, or matching McCain in the ad war because of his unlimited funding. The Republican campaign needed to find a way to keep Obama off the air – given the media’s preference for a young, attractive, well-spoken candidate, that was not an easy task. I think the reason for the ‘celebrity’ line of attack was to head-fake Obama’s campaign into fearing overexposure, leading them to voluntarily give him a lower profile until the Conventions.
I don’t think this was a weak move by the Obama campaign – there is a danger of the public growing tired of the Democratic candidate before November, so a period of off-screen time was probably due. However, McCain’s campaign will have calculated that the risk of overexposure was less likely than Obama securing a solid lead, which McCain’s campaign could not afford.
Even assuming that I have correctly diagnosed the thinking behind McCain’s advertising strategy, I don’t think it will guarantee success in November. I do, however, think that avoiding a double digit national lead prior to Labor Day has helped McCain keep the RNC and major donors interested in his candidacy. With so much stacked against the Republican nominee, that is no small blessing.