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The Collapse of Campaign Security

Last week Wednesday it was pretty clear Biden was going to be Obama’s pick. By Thursday night I told my liberal co-worker friend Biden was going to be the pick. Friday is when the media began hounding the Obama Campaign about the VP pick and Friday night they were camped out anywhere Biden might be, to the point where I even heard about media people tracking airplane flights via radar.

Drudge reported Secret Service agents had taken over Biden’s security late Friday night and by about 1am NBC (might have been 1:30, I’m a little hazy in my memory) reported Biden was the pick on their live Olympics coverage. It wasn’t until 3am that people got their text messages from Obama on their phones.

The debacle is a classic example of when the operational security of a campaign collapses. Political campaigns are about carefully managing the message and trying to control the conversation on your terms. The media can explode on a story to either disastrous or positive effect. Controlling when information leaks out and how it leaks out allows the savvy campaign manager to predict not only the media reaction but also the reaction of the opposition party.

In a presidential campaign there are predictable events which will cause explosions of media. Concessions, VP announcements, debates, new polling data, conventions. These happen every presidential campaign and any political hack worth their salt will have plans dealing with these events. The VP announcement is perhaps the one event a campaign has the most control over.

As long as they can keep the secret long enough to take advantage of the media cycle.

Ideally, the candidate makes his decision (along with a few select advisers) and within 24 hours they have all their press kits ready to go and go public in the middle of the week where they’ll dominate the 24 hour news networks and prevent the opposition campaign from having prepared material to dampen the positive media exposure.

By being unable to keep the secret and releasing the VP pick in the middle of the night Saturday morning the Obama campaign has allowed the Republicans to rain on what should have been very positive media coverage parade.

Firstly, for the next 24 hours there is no major media cycle to speak of. The next “big important” political media coverage cycle are the Sunday talk shows. The McCain campaign thus has a full day to make plans for 1) TV ads 2) web viral videos 3) opposition research on Biden 4) the next media cycle. If Obama properly times his announcement for midweek, McCain spokespeople and supporters will be brought on the 24 hour news networks without a lot of prep time. They will be forced to speak on Biden without a “campaign message” about Biden and the various reactions could put the McCain campaign at a disadvantage. Now, however, the McCain campaign can pick and choose what their overall media theme will be in response to Biden. (BTW, that theme appears to be “Biden is the mentor” and I’m not sure how good that will be)

Secondly, McCain could decide to announce his VP pick on a Sunday talk show and take away all the potential media coverage Obama was expecting. No matter what, the Sunday talk shows will be giving equal time to the McCain campaign’s planned response and the Biden announcement will be old news by Monday, when the real media cycle begins.

All of this is important because the Obama campaign has thrown away millions of dollars in free media exposure. Not only have they given away tons of free media, they have actually given a great deal of free media to the GOP.

Thirdly, this makes the Obama campaign look immature and ineffective. The messed up their own VP media blitz. They couldn’t handle the pressure. They weren’t ready with a national message to go along with the Biden pick. This will create an opening for opposition criticism. How competent can we expect Obama’s administration to be when his campaign couldn’t even send those text messages in a timely manner?

In the next week the Dems will get a lot of positive media attention thanks to their National Convention. But they have allowed that positive attention to be isolated. This Sunday, the Biden announcement will face heavy criticism amongst the media in the talk show circuit. The next Sunday could be spent talking about the Convention, however, I think McCain could soften up that media coverage by announcing his VP pick on the Sunday talk shows and destroy the momentum Obama should be enjoying after the convention. Then, the RNC will bring more media attention to their ticket and dominate the media cycle for a solid 11 days. I don’t know if McCain will do it this way, but if he did I think it could give him a better convention bounce.

But let the lesson be clear, maintaining campaign informational intelligence (or security, depends on what Karl Rove training camp you’ve been through) is paramount to controlling the kind of earned media a campaign recieves.

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4 Responses

  1. I actually agree with you that this was botched, but have seen a counter argument forming — the argument goes that the Obama camp knew that the McCain camp would be prepared for virtually any non-bizarre VP pick, and that the days of a “freebie” day of positive news for picking a VP is over. As a result, the campaign decided to wait to pull the trigger until the lowest ebb of the news cycle. That way, all of the negative stuff comes out today, you get the Sunday gabfests where Dems will love him and Repubs will hate him (which everyone would have done regardless of the pick, and so won’t shock anybody), and by Monday everyone will be perfectly happy to move on to the convention.

    Even if this is true, I still think the campaign was too cute by half in announcing the pick. If it were me, I probably would have gone for Tuesday night. I don’t think they panicked, however — I think this was their plan all along. They’re either crazy geniuses or they miscalculated, but I don’t think panic or an inability to handle the “pressure” was involved.

    As for McCain announcing tomorrow morning — really? I don’t see it. The pick would be forgotten the minute the convention started the next day. At best he’d slightly counteract the gabfest on Biden — but does he really want to do that? The coverage hasn’t been universally kind, after all. I just don’t see any benefit to that. By waiting until next Friday, though, he gets the natural advantage of the media already being ready to move on from Denver. Instead of the off-weekend going to a rehash of the Dems, he’ll shift focus to the Repubs. I think it makes a lot more sense to wait until Friday, when the media is ready and willing to move on. Anything before that and there will be very little coverage.

  2. Next Friday is probably the way to go for McCain’s pick.

    We’ll see how the timing on this announcement plays out on the Sunday talk shows. My guess is it still takes any bump out of what should be a lovefest announcement.

    Announcing at the top of the cycle still prevent the GOP time for the viral videos, commercials and a uniform strategy. Forcing a local McCain spokesmen to talk live about the biden pick hours after it was announced is a disadvantage even when you’ve been prepping on any of a number of candidates.

    Plus, Obama is showing his hand today in these speeches (that no one will see) as to how he sees his VP pick, again allowing plenty of time to run strategy questions past advisors (who then can run focus groups to formulate better messages in response). You announce at the peak of the media cycle, you don’t get any focus group data until late.

  3. good post, Marty.

  4. [...] Posted on August 26, 2008 by Marty Andrade It was my theory that the Biden pick was a misstep and was hishandled by the Obama campaign. It’s difficult to test the veracity of such claims, but this poll (via [...]

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