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Travel Globally, Attack Locally

In the last day or two, we’ve seen the pattern emerge of two very different advertising strategies that make sense for each campaign’s needs.

To have an electoral chance, John McCain’s camp has to make Barack Obama unacceptable, and they need to reach as wide an audience as possible to virally spread attacks on his character. They need to deputize as many citizen smearers as possible to go forth and spread the word that this guy can’t be trusted to lead. It’s not so much the issues – Democrats have too large an edge in the generic policy preference in this cycle and Nate’s innovative graph shows Obama is squarely in the Democratic policy mainstream – it’s Obama’s personhood that must be undermined in order to differentiate him from the hypothetical generic Democrat.

To that end, the McCain camp has gamed out the back and forth. McCain’s group raises fear about Obama, Obama calls out the behavior as fearmongering by trying to remind people he’s different, McCain replies that Obama is playing the race card. This is catnip for the media. As Chuck Todd said the other morning, any day that race is the topic (regardless of who’s right about who played the race card) is a bad day for Obama.

Obama’s contrasting strategy: Only go negative in substantive ways on a local level. In Ohio, Obama is blasting McCain on the local impact of the loss of 8,000 jobs in the DHL-Airborne Express fallout. Campaign manager David Plouffe says everyone in the Cincinnati and Dayton markets will know that ad by November 4. In Nevada, Obama has an ad hammering McCain on the local substantive issue of Yucca Mountain.

This localized negative ad strategy dovetails with the Obama campaign’s focus that national tracking polls don’t matter, only winning the states it has to win does. Obama’s team beat the inevitable Clinton machine in no small part because it outhustled and precisely targeted its resources to win very specific battles en route to the overall win. It understands the approach we take here at FiveThirtyEight, which is to focus on electoral math and state-by-state polls with an eye toward heavy localized organizing.

Obama’s strategy is probably optimal; he has to be very careful with his own negative ads, despite the gnashing of teeth by some in Democratic corners that he launch heavy blanket offensives that change the media storyline (hint: it would be, “with his negative ads, is Obama really a new politician?”). Obama’s brand, for better or for worse, is about the toxic effect in out politics of character attacks and the politics of personal destruction. McCain’s camp is surely salivating at the opportunity to use the fact of any negative advertising to label Obama as fraudulent. But if the ads themselves are about a specific issue, it prevents the media from being able to discuss the implications of a negative Obama ad without explaining the dispute, thus amplifying the substance of the Obama claim.

Given that the Democratic primary lasted so long, Obama’s team had the opportunity to test state-specific messaging in nearly every state (Michigan and Florida being key exceptions). One would expect this iteration of campaigning to be much more well-informed with internal polling about what issues have traction where. Keep an eye out for this pattern of hitting McCain hard and locally on an array of hot button issues that remind voters how mad they are at Republican policies (see: wrong track).

Incidentally, if Nate hadn’t posted about John McCain using $6M to go negative during the Olympics, I would have. Wow. Last week, we speculated that even if McCain bought ad time, he’d use it for personal branding because surely, nobody would be so stupid as to punctuate the uplifting Olympics with personal partisan attack ads.

Obama’s Olympic “Hands” ad celebrates American ingenuity and runs for 15 seconds before you have any idea it’s even a political ad. There’s Michael Phelps setting world records, there’s Morgan Freeman’s powerful voiceover in Visa ads celebrating the human condition, then there’s a guy telling you how dangerous his political opponent is. Way to keep the mood going. Grinch, indeed.