The Selling of the President

November 11, 2008


Editor’s note: This is John Reinan’s weekly marketing column for To see the original, go to

I’ve avoided writing about the selling of the presidential candidates, though I’ve been tempted. Now that it’s over, however, I can’t resist doing a campaign post-mortem from a marketing perspective.

I’d argue that perhaps the biggest factor in the race had nothing to do with marketing at all. The September meltdown of Wall Street destroyed Republican credibility on the economy and snuffed out McCain’s post-convention bounce.

And I’m going to leave Sarah Palin out of the discussion. After all that’s been written about her effect on the race, I don’t have much to add.

Still, there were plenty of other areas within each candidate’s control where they either helped or hurt themselves with their marketing strategy and tactics. Here are a few.

McCain’s messages. The GOP candidate began the campaign as the war hero, the maverick. He ended it as the Not-Obama, asking America not so much to vote for him as to vote against his opponent. In the final months, his campaign rolled out an endless message-of-the-week parade, discarding each one as it failed to gain traction: Obama the celebrity, Obama the terrorists’ pal, Obama the socialist.

Despite his recent record of support for Bush administration policies, McCain really did have a long history of independent thought and principled action. But he bailed out on the maverick brand before it really had a chance to build.

The 50-state strategy. In recent presidential elections, Democrats played to their base, hoping to win the true-blue states and pick up one or two swing states. Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was a strong and early supporter of campaigning hard in all 50 states. He was ridiculed by Republicans and a fair number of Democrats for believing that his party could compete in places like Indiana, Nevada and Montana.

But Obama signed onto the 50-state strategy, which helped the Democrats pick up some surprising wins in conservative areas and forced the GOP to spend time and money campaigning in places where they’d previously been able to mail it in. The Democrats stopped thinking of themselves as a regional brand and started thinking of themselves as a national brand.

Obama embraces technology. The winner broke new ground in harnessing technology to support his campaign. From online fund-raising to viral Web videos to mobile messaging platforms, Obama’s organization was ahead of the opposition all the way.

His supporters supplemented the official campaign efforts with a steady stream of blog posts, homemade videos and text messaging trees.

Stagecraft still matters. Since the Reagan era, Republicans have excelled at setting the scene for their



 candidates. This year, the Democrats surpassed them. Though GOP bloggers and pundits tried to make an issue of Obama’s acceptance speech at the Denver nominating convention, with its column-flanked stage, it went off spectacularly. An 80,000-seat stadium packed with cheering supporters made for great TV. Meanwhile, McCain countered with a speech in front of a backdrop that looked like lime Jell-O laced with cottage cheese.

The candidates’ personalities played into this, too. I actually enjoy a fiery candidate – it seems more real, more human to me. But it’s long been an article of faith among media theorists that “cool” candidates do better on TV. And there’s no doubt that, among the two, Obama was by far the cooler candidate.

What’s the marketing lesson from the 2008 campaign? Much the same as for any successful product campaign: have a strong and clear message, stick to it and find new ways to deliver it. This year, Obama did just that.