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Election Reflection

Key campaign strategists look at what went right, wrong during the 2008 presidential election.

Michael DuHaime, political director for McCain/Palin 2008 (left) and GOP strategist Todd Beyer, president of Beyer Communications, Inc., said creating a distance between McCain and President Bush became an impossible task. Photo credit Molly Sullivan.
Michael DuHaime, political director for McCain/Palin 2008 (left) and GOP strategist Todd Beyer, president of Beyer Communications, Inc., said creating a distance between McCain and President Bush became an impossible task. Photo credit Molly Sullivan.

Lead managers for President-elect Barack Obama’s campaign said their opponent’s camp erred by not selecting Joe Lieberman as John McCain’s running mate.

McCain campaign advisers said Obama’s camp did a brilliant job “duct taping” John McCain to President Bush — the most unpopular president in modern American history.

These are a few conclusions reached by top strategists from the Obama and McCain campaigns during a two-day, post-election analysis sponsored by USC College’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, in association with Politico.

“Election 2008: Obama vs. McCain: What Happened and What Comes Next?” was held Nov. 21-22 at USC’s Davidson Conference Center.

“This period is at best for rest and relaxation and at worst for detox,” joked Unruh Institute Director Dan Schnur, referring to the weeks following a presidential election. “As they are recuperating from a very long, challenging, strenuous general election campaign, that they would be willing to take the time to join us is very much appreciated.”

Participants also included USC students who worked on Obama and McCain campus campaigns.

“I’ve been teaching here and elsewhere for 13 years and have never seen a level of student motivation, excitement, enthusiasm and involvement in the political process as I saw this past semester,” Schnur said.

During two morning discussions on Nov. 21, Obama advisers said a Lieberman choice for vice president — or another candidate of a different party — would have been a better strategy for McCain than his selection of Sarah Palin.

Top editors and senior reports for Politico, and USC Daily Trojan reporters co-moderated the discussions.

“I think that if [McCain] would have picked Lieberman or another Democrat, he would have taken away an important trademark of Barack [Obama], which was reducing partisanship and bringing people together,” said Steve Hildebrand, Obama’s deputy national campaign manager. “[McCain] would have made that an important trademark and kept the maverick.”

“That would have underscored his plan to be a maverick,” Linda Douglass, a USC College alumna, television journalist and senior strategist for the Obama campaign, said of a Lieberman pick.

Obama’s promise of change and to unify the country was the primary focus during the entire campaign — including the No. 1 goal for the Democratic National Convention, Douglass said.

“Goal No. 2 was to wrap George Bush around John McCain to the point where he would never be able to untangle himself,” Douglass said.

GOP strategist Todd Beyer, president of Beyer Communications, Inc., said that creating a distance between the Republican presidential candidate and Bush became an impossible task. But he pondered one possibility that may have made a difference.

“John McCain did the photo-op with George Bush in the White House Rose Garden,” Beyer said, referring to the March 5 press event, when Bush formally endorsed McCain and the pair shook hands, grinned and waved into a sea of cameras.

“Had he not done that would that have made a statement?” Beyer asked. “I don’t know. There were differences between the two, but [the Obama campaign] did a fantastic job in duct taping John McCain to George Bush.”

The danger was separating McCain from Bush and consequently alienating McCain from the Republican base, said Adam Mendelsohn, senior campaign adviser for McCain 2008.

In the end, concluded Michael DuHaime, political director for the McCain campaign, “We could never be more unlike Bush than Sen. Obama.”

Perhaps the most important decision for an Obama win was a mandate that came not from his campaign managers but from the candidate himself, Douglass said.

For the general election, Obama refused to run a negative campaign.

“One of the things that Sen. Obama was relentlessly insistent upon was not engaging in any personal attacks on John McCain and to hit hard on the issues,” Douglass said. “It’s important to say that this was completely his decision.”

 

Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Spring/Summer 2009 issue.