At the end of every election, some political operative will swear to me that he is getting out of the business—insisting this presidential campaign was his last, begging for some kind of intervention if, four years later, he is spotted being lured in by some candidate. And then, a few years later, we are all, inevitably, back in Des Moines in a blizzard.

Let one truth of the 2008 campaign be this: Just as the strategists who helped Barack Obama win—including David Plouffe, David Axelrod and Anita Dunn—were veterans of losing endeavors in previous cycles, so, too, will many of last year’s strategists be back there again four or eight years from now, despite their protestations today.

What lessons will they bring with them? What have we learned from 2008? Here’s a look at a few things this election cycle taught us.


1. Do your message testing in private
Over the course of 2008, Barack Obama seemed to have a single, enduring message: change. But, in fact, Obama shifted his central rationale for running for president over the course of two years, from opposing the war in Iraq to restoring the economy.

And even at the rhetorical level, his core message changed slightly between the primaries and the general election. It started out as “Change We Can Believe In”—designed to undercut Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s claim to be a change agent, and to subtly dig at her character with the suggestion she was insincere, another way of suggesting that she would say or do anything to win.

Once the primaries were over, Obama began to take his argument in a new direction. By the end of the summer, he had arrived at a similar but adjusted slogan, tailor made for Sen. John McCain: the “Change We Need.” The old, blue banners were out, replaced by an entirely new set. That fresh, tweaked phrase was aimed at giving a sense of urgency to the candidate’s case against McCain, according to Obama advisers. Yet it did not arrive out of nowhere. Before Obama shifted from one slogan to the next, his advisers tested it carefully, as they did other slogans and word choices. And once Obama made the move, he did not formally announce it, or switch back. The effect was a seemingly smooth, artful transition from one mode into another that went almost completely unremarked upon and left voters with a sense that Obama was consistent throughout.

Clinton and McCain took a different, arguably less advisable approach. Both candidates switched their messages abruptly during their campaigns, at the poster-board level and at the highest strategic plane. Clinton launched her campaign with a video message that promised a “conversation” with voters—one that did not materialize until the very end—and then morphed into a forceful message emphasizing her “strength and experience to lead.”

Only late in 2007 did she begin to argue that she, like Obama, could bring about change—that, in fact, her experience would be necessary to make change happen. “If you’re ready for change, she’s ready to lead,” a narrator said in one of her advertising spots that fall. But she had another, simultaneous message running: that she was from a “middle class family, in the middle of America,” a relatively bland theme that undercut her other slogans. Added together, the sum of the Clinton slogans seemed to be less than their parts, diluting any sense of a central argument.

McCain went through a similar series of shifts, starting out, as Clinton did, with an emphasis on experience over change. But his evolution was more obvious and jarring, in ways big and small. Once an environmentalist, he came to embrace drilling. A populist for a while, he eventually eased into an anti-tax message with appeal across all economic sectors. And of course he undercut his experience mantra in picking Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, abruptly turning to “maverick” as his catch word.

Perhaps the most obviously problematic message shift for McCain came and went on a single day, June
3, 2008, when he declared himself “A Leader We Can Believe In,” a speech delivered against a now-infamous green backdrop that gave him a sickly look. The whole message—color and content included—was abandoned within hours. A short time later, McCain had moved on to “Reform, Prosperity and Peace,” a motto that lasted, and yet never really seemed to stick, perhaps because it had been clouded by so many rival themes.

The lesson? Better to test new messages in private—using focus groups and polling to shorten the list, and deliberating behind closed doors—than to %uFB02oat multiple trial balloons over the course of a campaign.


2. Try a little voter worship
Candidates often tell voters that the election is about the electorate, not the politicians. But Obama took it to an even higher level: praising voters for their willingness to move past old divisions in order to work, volunteer and vote for him. A vote for him, in essence, was a vote for progress.

This approach—which his canny pollster, Joel Benenson, described as the “voter as hero” model—allowed
Obama to portray the election as a referendum on America, not on himself. It was used in various ways, perhaps most importantly in the context of race. Although he was reluctant to dwell on the fact that he was running as the %uFB01rst African-American nominee of a major party, Obama countered questions about race by answering that America had evolved beyond its racial prejudices—a high form of political %uFB02attery.

When he was proven correct on Election Night, Obama declared to voters: “This is your victory.”

“We were always conscious that a strong part of our message was, ‘This isn’t about me, it’s about you,’” Benenson says. That strategy allowed Obama to de%uFB02ect questions, when they arose, about his personal background or even his religious beliefs; it fueled a grassroots movement that both %uFB01nanced and supported his candidacy; and it countered perceptions from earlier in the 2008 campaign that Obama had become a larger-than-life celebrity who was running on his remarkable biography alone rather than on his accomplishments, or in order to achieve speci%uFB01c goals.

By turning the mirror back on voters and away from himself, Obama defeated a rival with a biography as powerful as his own—evidence, his advisers believed, that the voter/hero model worked even more effectively for Obama than it had for Bill Clinton in 1992.


3. Watch how the money is spent
Campaigns love to dwell on the amount of money raised as evidence of a robust candidacy or a skilled management team. But more than ever, 2008 proved the adjunct maxim: It is how a campaign spends money that matters.

Clinton blew through $36 million in her virtually unopposed Senate reelection bid in 2006, funds that could have been used to carry her past Super Tuesday if she had handled them more carefully. And when she repeated the spending spree in 2008, requiring her to write millions in personal checks to her own campaign despite being a supposed fundraising behemoth, it offered a snapshot of one of her central problems: Her campaign was poorly managed, a re%uFB02ection of both a team of mismatched rivals as well as the manager who hired them.

The money decisions were so badly made that after the primaries were over, the residue of the Clinton campaign was stuck with a lease for its headquarters in Ballston, Va., that doesn’t end until the spring of 2009. The campaign offered Obama a sub-lease for his transition—but as a measure of his thrift, he declined, saying it was too expensive. A small incident, perhaps, but one that offers a window into larger truths about the two campaigns.

Several strategists in both parties say there is a basic (though adjustable) formula for anyone seeking clues about how a campaign is conducting itself when it comes to spending. About 50 percent of all the money should be spent on activities that actually reach voters, such as television advertisements, radio spots and direct mail. Another 10 to 15 percent (what is traditionally known as the “burn rate”) goes toward the costs of fundraising itself. And the remainder is spent on staff and consultant fees.

“The spending tells you if a campaign has its priorities right,” says Russ Schriefer, who has advised scores of Republican candidates at the state and national level, including George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney. “Show me an FEC report, and I’ll show you clues as to what a campaign’s strategy is going to be, and how effectively it is run.”

Other indicators include how much a candidate spends on overhead, such as rent, or on credit card late fees—never a good sign. In a different, but somewhat related, example, Obama used one instance of lavish spending to make a splash: he announced, weeks early, that he had bought a half-hour of primetime television real estate for the Wednesday before the election. The buy offered this storyline: Obama was con%uFB01dent enough about his prospects that he could spend millions on-air, adding an aura of growing inevitability at a time when millions of voters were already heading to the polls for early voting.

The upshot? Reporters and donors looking for clues to a candidate’s effectiveness should keep one eye on the expenditure sheets to understand how the campaign is really going.

4. Get consultants on the road
If you called senior Obama adviser David Axelrod on his cell phone toward the end of the campaign, you heard a familiar tune as you were patched through: “Hit the Road Jack.” It might as well have been a campaign credo. Rarely did Obama travel without having someone he trusted—most often Robert Gibbs, but many times Axelrod—on the campaign plane with him, and the rest of the senior staff didn’t hesitate to travel to important events and places, like the debates and Iowa.

By contrast, Clinton rode alone, sometimes with no one more senior than Huma Abedin, her 30-something personal assistant. Sen. John McCain brought Mark Salter, his literary alter-ego, on the road sometimes—but at other times %uFB02ew without so much as a traveling press secretary. Traveling aides needing a decision would often have to call back to the headquarters in Virginia for a sign-off, a disconnect in time and space that sometimes wasted hours.

McCain’s best days on the road were when he had senior strategist Steve Schmidt with him, and it was no surprise that when Palin went home to Alaska and conducted her %uFB01rst television interview, with ABC’s Charlie Gibson, Schmidt and four other senior strategists were also on board. It was no accident that the interview was one of Palin’s best performances, yielding almost no gaffes and answering, however brie%uFB02y, critics’ charges that she could not survive an interrogation.

In another election cycle, this might seem like a minor point, but at one moment in particular, Obama’s traveling brain trust made all the difference to him. At the height of the %uFB01 nancial meltdown, Obama mused late one night about calling McCain the following day to suggest the two of them team up in supporting a Wall Street bailout package. With Axelrod and Gibbs by his side, Obama was able to mull the idea over; when, at 8:30 a.m. the following day, he made the call, he had his closest aides with him, serving as a pipeline back to the campaign headquarters to keep other strategists informed.

The day unfolded disastrously for McCain, as he failed to return Obama’s phone call for another six hours, and then when he did, declined to share the news that he was suspending his campaign. How Obama handled that moment—and how his advisers, both with him and back in Chicago, recounted the story—arguably tipped the election his way. It couldn’t have happened so %uFB02uidly if he hadn’t had such authoritative backup, both to keep him informed of outside events as he was making decisions and then, later, to tell reporters how it all went down.


5. Remember how silly the media can be
Twice in this election we witnessed a depressing but real phenomenon: Even the most virtuous, serious reporters will buy into a catchy plot once in awhile. That was certainly the case when the McCain campaign decided to accuse Obama of having compared Palin to a pig, otherwise known as the “lipstick on a pig” incident.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift held a conference call; the blogosphere went wild; soon enough, the moment had invigorated an already rallied Republican base, prompting women to show up at Palin rallies wearing large plastic lips and carrying signs that read, “Read my lipstick.” It was a successful distraction from the %uFB01nancial meltdown that was getting underway—and it appeared, however brie%uFB02y, to work.

On a much smaller scale, Obama managed to distract “the beast,” as his campaign referred to the press, right before Election Day. With an ad, entitled “The Choice,” that featured a clip of Palin winking toward the camera, the Obama team generated more than 24 hours of news about his decision to %uFB01nally take her on—without really taking her on, or even buying much new airtime for the ad. It did, however, keep his momentum going during a critical phase toward the end.

6. Don’t dismiss the national polling
Okay, so they told us that Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani would be their respective party nominees, and offered nothing in the way of real predictive value about how the candidates would fare a year and a half before Election Day. Still, the national polls retained their place as a staple of the national election process—not because they accurately drove the storyline about the candidates, but because they captured the underlying trends.

Somewhere between the Florida debacle in 2000 and the latter part of 2008, we internalized the lesson that national polls were irrelevant, meaningless indicators of a national campaign that had no bearing on the Electoral College map. The Obama campaign in particular denounced national numbers, saying they were, as they had been in the primaries, measures of a broad, elusive mood that bore no relation to the actual mechanisms or people (such as proportionally divided delegates) who would pick the nominee and, later, the president.

But it turns out there actually were reasons to look at the national %uFB01gures, at least for anyone trying to gauge what was driving the top-line comparisons of the candidates. Underneath the horserace numbers, which were constantly close and in %uFB02ux, were a series of indicators about how the country was feeling (bad), attitudes toward Democrats and Republicans (more positive; less so), satisfaction with the trajectory of the country (low) and perhaps most importantly of all, which issues were atop voters’ lists.

It was this %uFB01nal, issues-driven element that could have been spotted from afar: early in 2008, the Iraq war began taking a back seat to the economy, and by late in the year, the economy was some 40 points ahead of Iraq, a shift that rede%uFB01ned the race and both candidates’ strategies.

More importantly, the national polls indicated more than a year beforehand that this was an election about change, not experience. That driving force wound up dominating the election, and wasn’t something that could have been derived simply from looking at state-by-state measures of the horse race.

So for those strategists who bite the bullet and submit themselves to yet another campaign cycle—keep these all in mind. Some of the most important lessons of 2008 seem obvious in hind- sight. (Another that came along the month after the election—don’t try to sell a Senate seat—is even more of a no-brainer).

The trick in 2009 and beyond will be for consultants to apply the maxims of the past without making the mistake of %uFB01ghting the last war.

Anne E. Kornblut covered the presidential race for The Washington Post.