The idea behind a Barack Obama infomercial was too easy to mock: “Vote Now and Get The Second Four Years for Free!”
But from a technical point of view – at least in terms of a pitch to the 6 to 8 percent of undecided voters – the half-hour ad his campaign aired Wednesday night was a quality piece of television. Even conservative commentators agreed that was the case, although some thought it was overkill – especially because it was accompanied by a day-long series of rallies and television appearances by Senator Obama. They culminated with Obama’s first appearance on the stump with former President Bill Clinton, at a rally in Florida, and with a satellite appearance on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart, the Walter Cronkite-like icon for the under-30 set.
The McCain camp, meanwhile, spent the day hammering a theme with which it began its campaign: that Obama is inexperienced and “dangerously” unprepared to take on a world threatened by terrorism. At a rally in Miami, Sen. John McCain reminded voters he has served America since he was 17 and has "the scars to prove it.” He also dismissed the Obama show as a “gauzy, feel-good commercial.”
Theirs were starkly different approaches to trying clinch the deal with any wavering voters, with few days left before Tuesday's election.
The Obama half hour, which appeared on seven networks and between airtime and production is estimated to have cost more than $4 million, marked the first time a presidential candidate used an infomercial to press his candidacy since 1992. That’s when Ross Perot, pointer in hand and graphs at the ready, used a series of infomercials to argue his case. Those infomercials were more like a series of lectures on the economy. Obama’s, by contrast, was a series of vignettes about the struggles of distinct middle-class American families. Woven in-between was Obama’s own personal story.
The quality of the production, which ended with a two-minute live rally in Florida, is a testament to Obama’s vast fundraising advantage over McCain. The Republican chose to take federal matching funds, which limit his ability to raise more cash. Obama declined and has instead pioneered an Internet-based grassroots fundraising strategy.
That’s allowed him to outspend McCain by as much as 2 to 1 in some critical states.
That cash helped buy Wednesday night’s infomercial, which focused on Americans’ daily struggles.
From having enough money to pay the monthly bills to surviving retirement without enough healthcare coverage to paying to educate their family, the personal stories the Obama infomercial portrayed are a mainstay of local television news – and they matched how many Americans have come to understand the political world, at least in this election cycle. Obama’s political team wove into that story-telling format a broad discussion of how the Democratic nominee proposes to meet each challenge – from healthcare to education to job security – and interspersed it with biographical information about Obama and endorsements from colleagues.
The message was directed at the undecideds and it was simple: Obama is a member of the middle class, just like you, and he will have your back.
“This is a way of defining himself. It’s a kind of ultimate closing argument, particularly for those who are just starting to pay attention – and it’s very legitimate. Not everyone can pay attention to this all of the time,” says pollster John Zogby of Zogby International in Utica, N.Y.
Those “undecideds” – some of whom are only now focusing on the campaign – have the potential to tip the election if they break decidedly for one camp or another.
McCain, too, is tailoring his message to attract them. Besides again raising questions about Obama’s preparedness, McCain has criticized the Illinois senator for wanting to “spread the wealth” and is characterizing him as "Redistributionist in Chief."
McCain also is critical of pundits who have written him off, as they have before. Many have said that, with just five days until the election, McCain will have a tough time engineering a last-minute comeback.
“There’s a 10 percent chance the polls are wrong, but there’s been such consistency across a range of surveys that it’s hard to believe the polls are that wrong,” says Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.