ST. PAUL, Minn. – In the space of two weeks, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain have radically revised the strategies of their campaigns.
And it all occurred at the respective conventions – which for the last 30 years have morphed into carefully stage-managed infomercials. But this year, the conventions utterly transformed the race.
How did this happen?
Prior to the conventions, Obama had sought to engineer a broad electoral breakout based on the Iraq war and the candidate's personality. The McCain campaign had hoped to spark an upset by creating doubts about Obama.
But the closeness of the race caused both camps to ditch their playbooks.
New strategy for Democrats
To understand the change in strategy, let's first go back to the Democratic convention in Denver. There was much concern at the start of the convention over whether Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton would endorse Obama.
Of course she would. But Clinton did so by the smallest degree politically permissible.
She touted the importance of putting a Democrat in the White House and urged her supporters to work for Obama. What she didn't do was issue a single word of specific praise about Obama.
Not that it mattered: Obama must win those voters on his own, and to this end he used his convention to change the thrust of his campaign.
In the primaries, Obama made his bones by running against the Iraq war, in favor of a more internationalist foreign policy, and by thumping the twin themes of Hope and Change.
In Denver, Iraq was barely mentioned, foreign policy was an afterthought, and the gauzy notion of Hope was put out to pasture. Instead, the campaign took up a full-throated call for economic populism.
The shift began with the selection of Sen. Joe Biden, who brings foreign-policy experience but, more important, a middle-class pugnacity that should appeal to many Clinton supporters.
Throughout the convention, speakers sounded the theme of economic populism. By the time Obama finished his big speech – which read like a primer on New Democrat philosophy from the 1990s – his campaign was transformed.
The McCain camp followed suit the next afternoon. Since June, the McCain campaign had positioned itself as, to put it simply: Not Obama.
That worked pretty well. Through a series of attacks on Obama's celebrity status, his credentials and his readiness to lead, McCain closed the gap in the polls. The race was even as the conventions began.
McCain's new message
But then McCain named Sarah Palin as his running mate and changed the entire narrative of his campaign.
Much has been made about the opportunistic nature of Palin's candidacy – she is meant to appeal to disaffected, female Clinton voters. But this misses the larger political fact of Palin: She's a reformer.
Palin's presence on the ticket coincided with an immediate change in message from the campaign. No longer content with Not Obama, the campaign set out to make the case for McCain as a reform politician.
This positions McCain to run not only against Obama, but also against the corrupt Republican establishment in Washington. Palin reinforces this message. She built her career confronting dirty Republicans in Alaska.
Once you understand the reform logic of the Palin pick, it becomes clear that she isn't supposed to poach Clinton women – though if she does, it will be a bonus.
Instead, Palin underlines a pitch to Reagan Democrats – the older, blue-collar voters who have consistently eluded Obama's grasp.
The rest of the Republican convention expanded on the reformer theme. By the end, it became clear McCain was intent on staking his own claim to the presidency.
Now the campaigns are on parallel tracks aimed at actively competing for the swath of voters in the same handful of swing states.
And it all started at the conventions.