Case Studies > President Barack Obama
Anzalone Liszt was part of the 2008 Obama for American general election polling team. Our firm focused primarily on the states of Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia, helping contribute to the strategic messaging and targeting direction in each state. The Obama campaign’s victories in Florida and Virginia were critically important, but with a winning margin of three tenths of one percent, North Carolina was the state carried by Obama/Biden by the smallest margin in 2008.
Obama 2008 North Carolina Case Study
Before Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign, no Democratic nominee had carried North Carolina since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Even with two Southerners on the ticket during the Clinton-Gore landslides, Republicans still secured the state’s electoral voters. The 2004 campaign saw President Bush defeat John Kerry by thirteen points (56% Bush / 43% Kerry), even with North Carolina’s own John Edwards on the Democratic ticket. North Carolina hadn’t even been seriously contested by a Democratic nominee since 1992. As the 2008 campaign entered the general election phase, there were few believers among the pundit class that any Obama effort in North Carolina would be little more than a strategic gambit to force Republicans to spend time and money in a state both parties knew would ultimately deliver its electoral votes to John McCain on Election Day.
In a state where the 2004 electorate was only 18% African American (79% White / 3% Other), it is not difficult to grasp why many observers were skeptical the Obama campaign could truly carry North Carolina. With then-North Carolina Senator John Edwards on the ticket, John Kerry won roughly 32% of the state’s white vote (assuming he carried 95% among African Americans, as is traditional in high-profile races). If the 2008 electorate were identical to the 2004 electorate, Obama would have needed to earn the support of 40% of North Carolina whites.
Identifying paths to reach that 40% white win number became the central focus of Anzalone Liszt’s role on behalf of the campaign. To that end, our analysis and messaging recommendations were not focused on the polling statewide, or even among the numbers solely among white voters. Instead, using demographic (gender, age, education, income, marital status) and geographic information, we were able to determine the types of white voters Senator Obama had the ability to capture. Often the messages we recommended were not the most broadly appealing to the entire electorate, the state as a whole, or even with our white voter targets. We pinpointed messages for which support among our target cells was the most intense, indicating those messages had the ability to move voters in our direction. It is somewhat counter-intuitive to not recommend the message that is the most broadly appealing to the broadest group of voters, but we firmly believed the campaign’s communications should stay focused on only those messages that garnered the most intense support from our narrow white subgroup targets.
Our polling demonstrated that in order to hit 40% among whites statewide, Senator Obama would have to run well ahead of 40% among white women, white seniors (age 65+), and white voters in the Western “mountain” media markets. The path to our white win number ran directly through these groups, and providing these voters, who were more accustomed to voting for a Republican, with a comfort level toward an African American Democrat was a critical first step. To that end, our polling showed a message of self-reliance and personal accountability, driven by Obama’s own life experience as the son of a single mother, was a potent way to build that basic comfort level among target white voters that was necessary for them to even consider pulling the Democratic lever. Senator Obama was fighting decades of negative perceptions that Democrats were too permissive, eschewed personal accountability, and were fundamentally not on the side of Americans who worked hard and played by the rules.
The following television advertisement was the first of the general election campaign and was a re-introduction of sorts of Senator Obama and his family to independent voters who were not as engaged during the party primary process. Anzalone Liszt helped inform this ad and sharpen its focus on the themes of personal responsibility, self-reliance, and accountability that our polling revealed to be a critical “price of admission” for many of our targeted white voters to give Senator Obama real consideration in November.
Obama Ad - “Country I Love”
Once the Obama campaign had invested significant resources in messages that helped establish a foundational comfort level among targeted white voters, we were able to then move to the core of the campaign – winning on the issues of jobs and the economy. Certainly after the mid-September financial meltdown, both campaigns knew the election was to be decided on which candidate had the most credibility on the economy broadly and standing up for middle class families specifically. Our polling quickly identified foreign trade as the most favorable ground on which the economic battle could take place. North Carolinians had seen their jobs go overseas and local manufacturing plants close for years, and we were able to connect the dots from the policies that led to community-killing local job losses directly to Republican nominee John McCain. Among white voter targets this issue tested so intensely, the campaign produced a North Carolina-specific ad.
Obama Ad - “Mills”
One issue that wasn’t among the most potent statewide was gender-wage discrimination. However, among our targeted white women, paying men and women the same wage for the same work was a vitally important issue and revealed each candidate’s true priorities. Our polling helped unearth this phenomenon and McCain’s record on the issue expanded the universe of white women open to voting for Senator Obama.
Obama Ad - “Who’s on Your Side?”
Investing in these economic messages, the Obama campaign saw real movement among North Carolina voters. Late October polling demonstrated Obama had developed an advantage among white voters on which candidate would “look out for the needs of the middle class”, and even more impressively had fought McCain to a draw on which candidate “will cut taxes for people like you” among white voters. Simply put, Senator Obama beat John McCain on the economy even among white voters.
In concert with an aggressive and well-funded field plan that drove turnout among our base constituencies, our paid communications utilized messages finely targeted to narrow swing white subgroups. This approach helped Senator Obama earn 40% of the white vote, fourteen thousand more votes than John McCain, a statewide victory of less than one percent, and North Carolina’s thirteen electoral votes. The aggressive field and get-out-the vote effort lowered our white win number to 38%, and our laser-like focus on targeted white subgroups helped secure enough whites to reach the narrowest of statewide majorities. The Obama campaign certainly could have won the White House without carrying North Carolina, but it is just as true that the Obama campaign would not have carried North Carolina without the accurate polling, message refinement, pin-point voter targeting, and strategic advice delivered by Anzalone Liszt Research.