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The Public's View of Obama and McCain's Campaign Strategies


Political pundits generally settle on a shared view of a campaign, one that includes a story about which groups each candidate worked hardest to win votes from. But how does the general public perceive the candidates' campaign strategies?

In 2008, I included a battery on the Cooperative Congressional Election Study which asked 1,000 American adults to indicate which types of people each candidate had focused more attention on (the actual wording of the question was "During the presidential election campaign, which of the following groups do you think [Barack Obama/John McCain] has focused most of his attention on?") Respondents could select up to five groups from a list of 21 and each respondent was asked to complete this exercise for both candidates.

I am using these data for a project I'm working on looking at targeting during campaigns; however, I thought that I'd share some initial results here. The chart below aggregates the responses to these questions to show how the public viewed both candidates' campaigns. The chart shows what proportion of the public that thought that Obama (on the y-axis) or McCain (on the x-axis) had focused on winning the votes of each group.

targeting.png

Groups in the upper left hand corner are those that a large proportion of the public thought the Obama campaign focused on targeting, but only a small share thought McCain did. Clustered far up in that corner are young adults, lower income Americans, and African Americans. Also near that top left corner are liberals. None of these groups are surprising to see in this corner, though they may be there for different reasons.

Groups in the bottom right corner are those that a large share of voters thought McCain targeted but which fewer thought Obama focused on. These groups included whites, conservatives, and upper income Americans. No surprises here either.

In the top right corner are groups that Americans thought both candidates focused on winning votes from. Interestingly, there are very few groups in this area, with middle income Americans standing mostly alone. Aside from this group, the public did not appear to identify too many groups that they thought both candidates were trying to win over.

Some other interesting findings from this chart:

  • More Americans thought that McCain tried to win the votes of women than Obama. It is interesting to ponder how big a role the Pallin selection was in affecting this perception. It is also worth noting that while more Americans thought that McCain was trying to win the votes of women, the gender gap strongly favored Obama in the actual voting.
  • Women are not the only group where the public's view of the candidates' strategies didn't quite match with the actual success of the candidate among that group. For example, Obama edged out McCain among Americans earning $150,000 or more. He also won big among those describing themselves as ideological moderates.
  • It is also interesting to see where Born-Again Christians fall on this chart. Despite the publicity Obama gained for targeting young evangelicals, few in the public actually credited him with trying to win over the votes of this group. However, perhaps more intriguing is the question of where this group might have fallen along the x-axis in the 2004 election. While between 20 and 30% of Americans thought McCain, it seems likely that this number is significantly lower than it would have been for Bush in '04.
  • Finally, there appears to be some polarization in these perceptions. In particular, note how far apart the income and racial groups are distributed on this chart. The public viewed African Americans as being almost the exclusive domain of the Obama campaign while whites were overwhelmingly viewed as being only targeted by McCain. Furthermore, the Obama campaign was viewed as being the only campaign focusing on lower income Americans while McCain was the only candidate viewed as focusing on those with higher incomes. On the other hand, both candidates were viewed as targeting middle income Americans.
  • These perceptions undoubtedly vary depending on whether a respondent is or isn't a part of each particular group. For example, those with higher incomes may have been more likely to think that Obama was focusing more attention on those with lower incomes compared to those who actually have lower incomes. I'll be exploring these dynamics when I analyze the data in more detail.

Overall, the chart provides some interesting insight into how the public viewed the candidates' strategies and raises an interesting question...how comparable would these perceptions be to the judgments of journalists and political pundits who follow the campaign for a living?

 

Comments
Jon:

It's weird that Jews appear in the bottom left, i.e. the public doesnt view them as being courted at all by either campaign. I remember all candidates giving speeches at AIPAC, and heavily focusing on this demographic, at least in Florida.

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