The Art of the Campaign

By Anne E. Kornblut
Sunday, August 12, 2007

President Bush came to office after the so-called "Seinfeld" election -- the mindless campaign of 2000, a race filled with chatter but fundamentally about nothing, like the hit television show.

Now that Bush's second term is winding down, a very different election is underway. Call it the anti-Seinfeld race: a campaign about everything, from the war in Iraq to oil policy to the environment to the "war on terrorism" to health care and beyond.

How do you frame an election this sprawling? Figuring that out is an urgent priority at more than a dozen presidential campaign headquarters, where Democrats and Republicans are busily trying to align the national zeitgeist with their candidates' strengths.

With Bush's approval ratings at historic lows, almost everyone on both sides agrees that the race could be summed up at this point in a single word: change. But a change to what?

Will 2008 boil down to continuing the U.S. commitment to the Iraq war and simply changing the commander in chief who's waging it, as several of the Republican candidates hope? Or will it be about a more radical sort of change -- a shift to the first female president, to the first African American president, to a new generation of leadership or even to a third-party candidate?

Will the electorate's primary consideration be competence and experience, after the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina and its mournful aftermath? Do voters want to relaunch the 21st century? To catapult forward into a different era? Or to return to the easier and more prosperous days of the 1990s?

"Elections are often more rejections of the prior administration than something brand-new," said the historian Garry Wills. "Even when Ronald Reagan was first elected, the exit polls said the main motive was to get rid of Jimmy Carter, not to elect Ronald Reagan. So the Democrats will have that going for them insofar as the election is retrospective."

On paper, Sen. Barack Obama would appear to have the edge when it comes to freshness. National polls show that he runs about even with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton when respondents are asked which Democrat "represents change," but his résumé is all about a break from the past -- about having spent only two years in Washington, opposed the war in Iraq from the outset and come from a different generation. "When you talk about the strength of his candidacy, if there is a national zeitgeist right now, it belongs to him," said Bill McInturff, a veteran Republican pollster who is doing work for Sen. John McCain of Arizona. To reinforce the point, Obama is embarking on a "Road to Change" tour of Iowa this month.

So is 2008 all about "turning the page," to borrow a phrase Obama has been using and reusing since the February speech that formally declared his candidacy? Not so fast. Clinton, with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, has declared her own vision of what the election is about, using dual parameters that suit her: experience and something new. Hence her campaign's double-barreled slogan: "Ready to Lead, Ready for Change." The concept is to offer two sides of the same coin, her advisers say -- a strategy that allows her to be about change and experience at the same time.

Strategists in both parties have learned from past elections that the candidate who successfully defines the debate often wins it. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush based his case for reelection on his foreign policy experience, arguing that a little-known Southern governor could not manage the perils of the new post-Cold War world. Bill Clinton took a completely different tack, based on the famous campaign mantra, "It's the economy, stupid." Clinton's framing of the race resonated far more with voters' concerns, and he went on to win.

More often not, a presidential race has two separate narratives, one Republican, one Democratic. Sometimes those storylines run close together; sometimes they're miles apart. The parties "always, to some degree, run at cross-purposes to one another," said the historian Robert Dallek. "If they're agreeing too much, they don't feel like they're setting forth a real program to attract voters."

The 1992 race hinged on two starkly different views of the campaign, but in other years, the Democratic and Republican nominees have fundamentally agreed on what the election was about. In 2004, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and President Bush both ran "national security" campaigns; Bush was just better at it.

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