Union University

Union University Department of Political Science

Department of Political Science



Campaigns Can Predict Governing

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Jul 18, 2008

How will Barack Obama or John McCain govern if elected president in November? Perhaps the best measure is how they run their campaigns. Due to the need to create a strategy, develop policies, communicate your views, manage a large organization, build coalitions, mobilize supporters, and react to crises, campaigning is very similar to governing. And the campaigns so far indicate strengths and weaknesses for both candidates.

First, Obama’s campaign reflects his community organizing roots as he has successfully connected a larger purpose of change to creating community and the nuts and bolts of organizing. On a strategic level, Obama saw a dissatisfied and disenchanted public and wisely ran a campaign based on optimism and change best signified by the slogan “Change We Can Believe In.” And when faced with setbacks, he showed the self-confidence to stick with this strategy, only making tactical changes after defeats.

Moreover, Obama recruited well-respected advisors and created a community of shared interests to a common enterprise allowing each to contribute to the campaign. Aided by his charisma, he has expanded this sense of community to volunteers, activists, and voters driven by a positive desire to improve the country while redressing grievances by the Bush Administration. Combining community with an extensive grassroots and net-roots organization, he mobilized voters and activists into record voter turnout and campaign contributions.

In addition when faced with controversy, he neutralized the weakness by making well-received speeches on racism and patriotism while jettisoning baggage when it became toxic (e.g., Jeremiah Wright, Wesley Clark). Finally, he demonstrated character by allowing Hillary Clinton to graciously finish her campaign making it easier to mend the party.

Overall, Obama ran a very impressive primary campaign that foreshadows a successful Obama Administration. However, he faces several problems. First, Obama sells style and personality more than substance which could undermine his appeal as people learn more about him. Second, Congress has not debated many of Obama’s proposals, and uncertainty and unfamiliarity makes it more difficult to pass legislation. Third, closed deliberations could lead to fewer views being heard leading to poor decision making.

Second, John McCain runs his campaign like the Senator he is. Each Senator’s office is its own independent corporation promoting the Senator’s reelection and legislative agenda. Due to each Senator’s unique political needs and diverse policy interests, Senators have few permanent coalitions and instead build coalitions bill by bill. Moreover, the uncertain legislative environment makes Senators reactive while the diversity of issues and competing demands on Senators’ time (attend committee meetings, vote, meet, listen, and lobby constituents, interest groups, and other Senators, raise money, etc.) leads Senators to value flexibility and multiple sources of advice.

The benefits are obvious for McCain. First, his demonstrated record of bipartisanship will help him govern in what will be a more liberal and Democratic Congress. His appeal to moderates will also increase his bargaining power with congress. Second, his constant pursuit of bipartisan initiatives that his party opposes clearly indicates his ability to withstand pressure. Third, listening to multiple advisors means he can make changes easier, react to crises better, and pursue more innovative policies.

The dangers are also obvious. First, independence, especially thriving off your independence, may alienate party colleagues making it difficult to pass bills and to create loyalty to your Administration. Second, an unstructured organization means no one is in charge which means his Administration would probably operate on an ad hoc basis with no overarching strategy. Third, a president’s words are constantly parsed and talking off the cuff creates more opportunities for gaffes such as his “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” comment. Moreover, presidents use more formal speeches to create media events, and McCain does this poorly.

So with McCain, we can see why Senators have a difficult time winning presidential elections. It might also explain how Obama’s lack of Senate experience may actually help him in November.

Originally appeared in the Jackson Sun on July 11