Campaign Managers Analyze Decisions and Tipping Points in Presidential Race

December 12, 2008
by Doug Gavel

Contrasting perspectives on the strategies and tactics deployed in the 2008 presidential campaign were presented Thursday night (Dec. 11) during a fascinating discussion at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum. Four campaign insiders – David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Rick Davis and Bill McInturff – shared their insights, often disagreeing as to the impact of certain critical decisions and key turning points that punctuated the campaign.

“On a macro-level this race was about change,” said Axelrod, who served as president-elect Barack Obama’s chief campaign strategist. “One of the premises of our race was that Obama represented the starkest change from George W. Bush in style and substance and in many different ways.”

And although Sen. McCain also represented change to a certain degree, Axelrod said his shifting stance on several key issues – including tax cuts – positioned him more as a candidate aligned with the outgoing president.

Rick Davis, who managed McCain’s campaign, countered that the Republican nominee “was a risk taker as a candidate” – exemplified by his stand on immigration reform. Yet Davis admitted that the war in Iraq tied McCain to Bush in the eyes of many voters.

“There is no question that our involvement [in Iraq] continued to plague us as a party and as a candidate for that party. That was our connection to the Bush Administration. That was the easiest connection to make, and the most intense one,” he said.

But Axelrod argued that the war was not the defining issue in the campaign; the economy was. And he claimed that McCain stumbled badly on the issue, making the claim, days after the financial firm Lehman Brothers collapsed, that the “fundamentals of the economy are strong” that cost him crucial support.

“When you talk to the voters, things really turned after that,” said David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager. “And they’d add that ‘he just doesn’t get what I’m going through.’”

The intense media coverage surrounding Obama’s relationship with the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright served as a “moment of peril” for the Obama campaign, Plouffe admitted. Yet the crisis also served as a tremendous opportunity, Axelrod said, for Obama to deliver a major address on U.S. race relations in March.

Axelrod described how it came together: “Sunday night Obama started writing at about ten o’clock after he put his kids to bed. He wrote until about three in the morning…We leave [the next morning] for Pennsylvania. He campaigns until 9:30 that night and then goes to his room to finish that speech…and I woke up at about two in the morning and there was the speech on my Blackberry. I spooled through the speech and I emailed him back saying ‘this is why you should be president.’”

On McCain’s decision to name Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, Davis admitted it was “politically risky,” but very necessary considering McCain’s position in the polls at the time. McInturff, who served as McCain’s polling director, said the decision paid off by emerging by the GOP base and boosting fund raising efforts tremendously.

Yet, in the end, all sides agreed, McCain and Palin were unable to overcome Obama’s advantages in terms of fundraising and ground operations. Plouffe pointed out that the longer the campaign dragged on, the better the chances were for the Illinois senator.

“A presidential campaign and the decision for voters is one of the most personal decisions they make, so it is a lot about character, and I think the long campaign benefitted us because Barack Obama was someone people didn’t know that well, and I think we needed that time and exposure,” said Plouffe. “And I think over 22 months his message was very consistent. He was a very steady person.… He was the same person day in and day out talking about the same issues.”

Gwen Ifill, managing editor of Washington Week, and senior correspondent with “The Newshour with Jim Lehrer,” served as program moderator. The War Stories Forum was the one open session during the two-day campaign managers conference sponsored by the Institute of Politics.

President-elect Barack Obama’s chief campaign strategist David Axelrod

Gwen Ifill, David Alexrod, David Plouffe, Rick Davis and Bill McInturff (from left to right) discuss the campaign strategies of Obama and McCain in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum. Photo credit Justin Ide, Harvard News Office.

“One of the premises of our race was that Obama represented the starkest change from George W. Bush in style and substance and in many different ways.” - David Axelrod

President-elect Barack Obama’s chief campaign strategist David Axelrod

Axelrod, who served as president-elect Barack Obama’s chief campaign strategist, said the Obama campaign successfully focused on change as the key issue. Photo credit Justin Ide, Harvard News Office.


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