How Obama Won: The Overlooked Infomercial

by on December 29th, 2008

As we approach the end of 2008, and Inauguration Day, roundtable television shows such as “The Chris Matthews Show” and “Washington Week” have explored the topic “How did President-elect Obama win?”. In other words, how did a first term senator and former state legislator, with the middle name “Hussein”, overcome a seemingly unpatriotic pastor (and some say unpatriotic wife) to soundly defeat a war hero? What struck many observers as even more impressive, given that Senator John McCain carried some baggage labeled “GOP unpopularity”, is how did Team Obama beat the most astute political machine in Washington history- The Clinton’s. As one might imagine, pundits credit various milestones and moments- Obama’s Iowa primary win, his timely address on race relations, McCain’s v.p. pick of Governor Sarah Palin, and the bank failures brought on by the mortgage meltdown. Even more specifically, others cited McCain’s impulsive reaction to the financial crisis, or Palin’s clueless interview with CBS’ Katie Couric. The vote here is for none of the above. When undecided voter numbers were still relatively high, and columnists speculated about a the wild card of a “Bradley Effect”, Senator Obama took to the national airwaves with a 30-minute infomercial. It served as an effective closing argument, free of oppositional retort.

The final argument reached 33.5 million Americans via CBS, NBC, FOX, MSNBC, Latino-focused Univision, and TV One and BET (which are aimed at Black viewers). The cost was a relatively small $3 million. The impact was immeasurable. In settings that evoked either The Oval Office, or the average American kitchen, the Democratic candidate stated his concern for others and his vision of a future benefical to all. The program featured poignant vignettes during which middle class and working folks discussed economic setbacks and challenges, and we saw their hometowns and children. Footage showed Obama in such communities, reaching out to listen and learn.

Team Obama also used this prime time to tell, to those unaware, the story of Obama’s immediate family, who were white Kansans, and how they instilled their values in him when he was a boy.Terms such as “Patton’s army” and work in wartime production plants filled out the narrative. At a time when 23% of Texans polled believed Obama to be a Muslim, and others questioned his devotion to flag and country, such imagery was powerful. Obama came off as a thoughtful, vibrant politician, a family man, and an educated individual from a good background. Elitism, racial exotica, and media darling were nowhere to be found.

On the heels of three presidential debates, after which the term political analysts most used to describe Obama was “measured”, the infomercial provided added assurance. Amid uncertainty on Wall Street and Main Street, here was a figure who was centered. Only diehards and extremists could continue to paint such a candidate with a radical brush. The Democrats controlled the message, and let the headlines do the rest. As much as Obama’s 2004 keynote address thrust him into the public eye, the 30-minute humanization effort gave tentative voters an opportunity to relate to the man about whom many had received scurrolous e-mails or robocalls. Where previous Democratic standard bearers Gore and Kerry, as close as they came to victory, had failed to connect, Obama used symbolism and candor to do so. The direct language reflected Roosevelt, the telegenic presence of the candidate recalled JFK. It was one heck of a secret weapon, and unlike LBJ’s famous Daisy Girl ad, fear was not a factor.

Bijan C. Bayne