The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Message Shaped the 2008 Election. Kate Kenski, Bruce Hardy, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson (2010). New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 378.
Blogging the Political: Politics and Participation in a Networked Society. Antoinette Pole (2010). New York: Routledge. pp. 161.
Political communication scholars and educators are well aware of how new developments in social media, e-mail, blogging, and the microtargeting of messages to niche audiences have altered American politics and political campaigns. Two new books delve into these topics, one by focusing on the presidential campaign of 2008 and the other by examining political blogging by minorities, women, and political elites.
In the excellent and comprehensive The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Message Shaped the 2008 Election, authors Kate Kenski, Bruce Hardy, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson use a national rolling cross-section telephone survey, extensive analyses of campaign messages, a “comprehensive set” of media buys, a case study of the role radio ads played in the abortion and embryonic stem cell research debate, and interviews with campaign insiders to “explain the extraordinary election that . . . pitted a 72-year-old Vietnam War hero against a 47-year-old African American whose prime credential was prescient opposition to the war in Iraq” (p. 2). Focusing on framing and priming, the book explores how Obama’s campaign messages adroitly reinforced frames already established in the news media and exploited the historical economic meltdown to win the election, albeit with help from the McCain campaign’s mistakes and Sarah Palin’s poor news media performances.
The book is divided into three sections. In the first four chapters, the authors explore the candidates’ central messages about themselves and their opponents. Next, in chapters 5 through 10, the book divides the general election into five periods coinciding with shifts in momentum. Finally, the book examines the effects of massive early voting and the Obama campaign’s large expenditures and microtargeting.
From the beginning, the authors point out that while in some ways Barrack Obama’s victory in 2008 was a monumental milestone, in other ways it was quite predictable. On one hand, an African-American U.S. Senator with only three-plus years of experience in Washington, who had never run any governmental office or agency, won his party’s nomination, narrowly beating the prohibitive favorite, Sen. Hillary Clinton. He then won a decisive victory in the general election over John McCain. However, the book acknowledges that nearly all political scientists who study elections have concluded that the very low approval ratings for incumbent George W. Bush and the economic meltdown of 2008 all but guaranteed a Democrat win. Thus, the goal of the book is to determine what, if any, part media, money, and message played in the election. To that end, the book makes the convincing argument that Obama’s campaign skillfully used well-crafted messages that emphasized the economy and McCain’s connection to Bush and a much larger campaign war chest to convince a “center-right electorate” that a candidate perceived as liberal shared its values more so than a candidate “thought to be closer to its ideological bent” (p. 5).
The authors write that Obama’s messaging during the campaign successfully focused on several distinct themes, which had already been primed by the national news media. First, whereas Obama represented change from the status quo rather than a classic tax-and-spend liberal, McCain—or “McSame”—represented President Bush’s third term and politics as usual. Next, without directly attacking McCain as being too old to be elected, the Obama campaign was able to portray him as erratic, angry, and out of touch with the general public, particularly on economic issues, views that reinforced the notion that McCain was too old. Finally, the Obama campaign was able to deflect criticism that the Democratic nominee was not ready to lead. In the end, the authors conclude that the Obama campaign was much more consistent and relentless in its messaging—both positive and negative—and was able to use its enormous financial advantage to bury the McCain campaign in the critical months of September and October.
Overall, the book offers a data-rich and extremely well-written account of the 2008 election. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a book that is more comprehensive in scope. Because the book uses content analysis, interviews, and survey data, it is able to offer a compelling story of the campaigns’ responses to events and the resultant changes in public opinion. For example, the book does an excellent job of connecting the historically high gas prices of the summer of 2008 with the tactics used by both campaigns and voter reaction to these messages.
In addition, the book focuses on two newer tactics the Obama campaign was able to deploy on its way to victory. First, in chapter 11, in their analysis of absentee and early voting, the authors contend that partially through the use of e-mail “Obama locked up votes not only by getting his base to vote early but also by urging voters with a tentative commitment to his candidacy to do the same” (p. 251). The authors ably support this contention through their detailed analysis of data and successfully make the argument that it is important to note that Obama’s e-mails increased the disposition of people to cast an early ballot and to cast it in favor of him. Second, in chapter 12, the authors examine the role microtargeted radio messages played in Obama’s successful attempt to win over women voters on abortion and embryonic stem cell research. The discussion in chapter 12 is illuminating both for its focus on the differences in mass media and radio’s ability to deliver specific targeted audiences and its discussion of how Obama’s vastly superior financial resources made this an attractive medium for him to advertise in because McCain lacked the money to make similar buys.
Journalism and mass communication educators could use this book in a multitude of ways. The amount of data and theoretical foundation combine with excellent writing to make it appropriate for both graduate and undergraduate students. However, the book would be ideally suited to a special topics seminar on the role of communication in the election of 2008 and could be used in conjunction with video clips of the specific campaign ads, news coverage, and Saturday Night Live skits the book describes in great detail. Reading the book is almost like reliving the campaign month-by-month.
In Blogging the Political, Antoinette Pole offers an interesting, if at times slightly uneven, examination of political blogging. Pole divides her book into two sections. In the first and strongest section, Pole studies specific groups of bloggers based on gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. In the second, Pole investigates how elite political actors are using blogs. In this section of the book, Pole examines the use of blogs by members of Congress and the use of blogs in the 2008 presidential primaries and general election.
The book’s strongest features are its focus on the way blogging has changed political participation and the in-depth interviews. Pole conducted interviews with political bloggers. Through her interviews with African-American, Latino, women, and LGBT bloggers, Pole is able to shed light on political blogging from the perspective of these bloggers. Pole’s explorations of the motivations for blogging in chapter 2, Race and the Blogosphere, and chapter 3, Women and LGBT Bloggers, are particularly interesting. While these chapters might have benefited from a more careful parsing of blogs maintained by professional communicators and journalists and those maintained by “average citizens,” overall they provide an interesting picture of who is blogging about politics, what they blog about, and why they blog. While she is careful to document the many challenges the bloggers face in having their blogs read by a wide audience or linked to by more popular political bloggers, Pole successfully supports her argument that blogging is a new form of political participation that has the potential to transform civic engagement.
Unfortunately, the book as a whole has several weaknesses. First, although the chapters discussed above are very strong, the book falters when Pole explores blogging by elite political actors in chapters 4 and 5 and when she attempts to measure the influence of blogging on public opinion. A key problem with her discussion of elite political blogs is that while Pole makes a valid argument supported by content analysis that political elites use their blogs in fundamentally different ways than other political bloggers, she does not follow this through by exploring if these “blogs” are really blogs at all, but rather simply web sites that happen to be written in the first person. This discussion would advance both her arguments about blogs and political participation as well as scholars’ understanding of what makes blogs unique. Fortunately, in chapter 5, Pole returns to her strengths and interviews Congressman Jack Kingston about his blog and reasons for blogging.
Second, because the chapters contain redundant information and the first chapter reads like it was written as an afterthought, the book is more like four very interesting research papers rather than a single coherent book. For this reason, mass communication scholars would best use the book as a supplement to a more comprehensive and traditional text on political communication. Many courses and students would benefit from having one or two of the chapters assigned to highlight particular topics, or the important way political blogging is changing politics.
University of Denver