Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Quantifiable Media Factors that Attributed to Barack Obama’s Victory in the 2008 Presidential Election

I have been very critical of both Barack Obama’s record and his policies. I’d like to take a moment to step back and look at the things he did right during the election. There’s simply no denying that Barack Obama ran a masterful campaign. Allow me to take an academic approach to breaking down the quantifiable media factors which led to his victory.


In all, Mr. Obama invested approximately $340 million (over 57% of his total budget) into media expenditures (The Center for Responsive Politics). Entailed within his media expenses was roughly $309 million for broadcast media, $15.35 million for print media, and $14 million for internet media (The Center for Responsive Politics). Conversely, Mr. McCain invested just 38.2% ($118.8 million) on media expenditures; which equates to about 1/3 of Obama’s overall media expenses (The Center for Responsive Politics). Mr. McCain spent roughly five times less on broadcast media ($63.5 million), three times less on internet media ($4.65 million) and around three thousand times less on print media ($5,117) (The Center for Responsive Politics). Within his media spending, Mr. McCain classified many of his expenses as “miscellaneous media” ($50 million), which might explain the dramatic disproportion in print media expenditures.

Other major campaign expenditures for the two candidates included polling, surveys, research, travel, campaign events (such as rallies), postage/ shipping, direct mail, rent/ utilities for campaign buildings and functions, food, political consultants and materials. Mr. Obama out-spent Mr. McCain in each of these categories (usually by a margin of at least two to one), but the most notable of these was his cost of traveling ($44.65 million) as compared to Mr. McCain’s ($26.76 million) (The Center for Responsive Politics). This suggests that, not only was Mr. Obama out-spending Mr. McCain in all areas of advertising, but he was also getting more face time with the voters.

Charitable donations provided another expense for the two campaigns. Mr. McCain spent more in charitable donations ($19.4 million) than he did on his print and online media initiatives combined. He also donated about 158 times as much as Mr. Obama, who gave just $122,455 to charities (The Center for Responsive Politics).

Advertising and Campaign Finance:

In the wake of a 2008 presidential election in which one of the candidates spent more in advertising than any politician in American history, it is prudent to see what effect, if any, political advertising has had (Rutjim & Rutenber). By the end of October, 2008, Senator Barack Obama surpassed the $188 million advertising record set by George W. Bush in the 2004 campaign (International Reporter). With advertisements which ran repeatedly day and night, on local stations and on the major broadcast networks, on niche cable networks and even on video games and his own dedicated satellite channels, Mr. Obama out spent Senator John McCain in advertising nationwide by a ratio of at least four to one (Rutjim & Rutenber).

The huge gap between the two candidates’ spending was the result of Mr. Obama’s decision to opt out of the federal campaign finance system 4 and 1/2 months before the election. Earlier in the election, both candidates agreed to participate in this system which gave presidential nominees $84.1 million in public money but prohibited them from spending any more than that amount from the day of their party convention to Election Day (Jensen & Salant). In this system, candidates are still able to solicit private donations, but the money can only be used toward legal and accounting expenses (Kolawole).
“After initially vowing to take public funds if McCain did, Obama became the first presidential candidate since the campaign finance reforms of the 1970s to raise private donations during the general election” (Overby & Montagne).
When the campaign finance system was created after the Watergate scandal in 1974, it had two goals: reduce the influence of money in politics and level the playing field for candidates (Rove).

When asked if he would agree to forgo private funding in the general election campaign and participate in the presidential public financing system, in a questionnaire issued by the Midwest Democracy Network in October, 2007, Mr. Obama responded:
“Yes. In February 2007, I proposed a novel way to preserve the strength of the public financing system in the 2008 election. My plan requires both major party candidates to agree on a fundraising truce, return excess money from donors, and stay within the public financing system for the general election...”
Seven months later, Bloomberg news reported a retraction on Obama’s part:
“Obama pledged in March 2007 to pursue an agreement with the Republicans to participate in the public-financing system, which is designed to limit the influence of big money. That was before he began shattering private-fundraising records.”
Mr. Obama ultimately opted out of the federal campaign finance system in mid June 2008, saying:
“It's not an easy decision, and especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections. But the public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken, and we face opponents who've become masters at gaming this broken system" (BBC).
From the beginning of his campaign to the end, Mr. Obama raised nearly $750 million in private funding, exceeding the amount raised by George Bush and John Kerry combined ($653 million) in 2004 (Overby & Montagne). It’s no surprise, with such a record-breaking capacity for fund raising, that Mr. Obama opted out of his public financing promise.

Conversely, Mr. McCain stuck to his promise to use the campaign finance system. Mr. McCain’s reasoning is perhaps best highlighted by a statement made several years before the 2008 election when speaking to the University of Oklahoma in 2001 as a co-sponsor of the “McCain- Feingold” legislation (which sought to reform campaign finance such that lobbyist and special interests would be detached from the election process), where he said, "Throughout history America has gone through cycles. We go from clean to corrupt and back to clean again. Right now (campaign finance) is corrupt and it's time to clean it up” (McNeill).

When asked about his pledge to the federal campaign finance system in April 2008, Mr. McCain reiterated, “I’m committed to it… I am the presumptive Republican nominee; I will take public financing” (Cooper).

After Mr. Obama made the decision to use private funding, he reported that nearly four million donors contributed to his campaign (Overby & Montagne). The nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute found that Mr. Obama collected about 26% of his donations from people who gave less than $200 — about the same as President George W. Bush did in his 2004 campaign (Overby & Montagne). Approximately 74% of Mr. Obama’s funds came from large donors (those who donated more than $200), and nearly half from people who gave $1,000 or more (Rove).

And so it went that Mr. McCain’s advertising budget was limited to an $84.1 million pool of public finance from the day of the Republican National Convention until the fourth of November, and Mr. Obama raised over $100 million in private funds in the month of September alone (Brown). Due to this inequity, Mr. McCain turned in vain to the Republican Party to help level the difference.
“McCain relied heavily on the Republican National Committee to help narrow the financial discrepancy. But even with the party resources Obama had a vast money advantage… The RNC reported raising $75 million during the latest reporting period. Overall this year, the party committee raised $322 million. It ended with $13.5 million cash on hand. The Democratic National Committee reported raising $36.5 million (for Mr. Obama) in its latest filing, for a total of $186 million for the year. The party had $8.7 million cash on hand, but it also reported owing $5 million on a line of credit” (Overby & Montagne).
From the first of January to the first of November, Mr. Obama spent an estimated $280 million on television advertising, while Mr. McCain spent less than half as much (just under $134 million) (Kolawole).

In the final week before the election, Mr. Obama spent $23.6 million to Mr. McCain's $4.8 million in television advertising, a difference of about five to one (Kolawole). Also, in television advertising, Mr. Obama outspent Mr. McCain in Indiana by a range of nearly seven to one, in Virginia by more than four to one, in Ohio by almost two to one and in North Carolina by nearly three to two (Rove). Mr. Obama won all four of these states, which had favored George Bush just four years prior. During the final weekend preceding the presidential election, Barack Obama ran 77% more TV ads than John McCain (5,947 vs. 3,358) in seven key swing states: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia (Nielson Wire, Oct. 30, 2008). Mr. Obama applied a similar spending philosophy in the once “red state” of Florida and garnered similar results.
“In mid-September the Obama campaign said its budget for Florida was $39 million. The actual number was probably larger. But in any case, Mr. McCain spent a mere $13.1 million in the state. Mr. Obama won Florida by 2.81 percentage points. Mr. McCain was outspent by wide margins in every battleground state.” (Rove).
Similar to a maneuver used by Ross Perot in 1992 (and JFK before that), Barack Obama purchased 30 minutes of uninterrupted airtime with several television networks and cable stations at the rate of about $1 million per network (Burkeman). An online opinion poll done by MSNBC asked, “Will Barack Obama's 30-minute infomercial influence your vote?” Out of 76,085 votes, 56.4% said “No.” Even still, the infomercial reached 33.5 million viewers (Nielson Wire, Nov. 3, 2008). The broadcast aired on CBS, NBC, FOX, UNIVISION, MSNBC, and NY1 between 8pm and 8:30pm EST and, in the top 56 local television markets where Nielsen maintains electronic TV meters, 21.7% of all households watched Obama’s telecast (Nielson Wire, Oct. 30, 2008).

Mr. Obama even went so far as to purchase advertising space within 18 different video games (FOX News). The ads targeted 10 states that allowed early voting (Ohio, Iowa, Indiana, Montana, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Nevada, New Mexico, Florida, and Colorado) and were designed to appeal to males from ages 18-34 (a notoriously difficult demographic for advertisers to reach) (FOX News).

The “Ground Game”:

Mr. McCain wasn’t just out-spent in television advertising; Mr. Obama also used his monetary advantage to outmuscleMcCain on the ground, with more staff, headquarters, mail and a larger get-out-the-vote effort (Rove).
“His (Mr. Obama’s) campaign started pouring millions of dollars into opening scores of campaign offices in all 50 states, many in areas that Democrats hadn't contested in decades. In the traditionally GOP-favoring Colorado, Obama set up 59 campaign offices to McCain's 13” (Snyder).
This is perhaps best explained by the disproportion in salary expenditures between the two candidates. Mr. McCain was able to afford just $20.22 million in salary and benefit payments, while Mr. Obama managed to provide over twice that amount (~$50 million) (The Center for Responsive Politics). However, according to exit polls, it was McCain’s lack of a ground game (rather than Obama’s extremely well-organized initiative) which created the biggest difference in the Republican/ Democratic vote from 2004 to 2008.
“Throughout the campaign, much was made of the tremendous ground organization that Obama had built. Yet, according to the exit polls, Obama's organization did not contact a higher percentage of voters than Kerry's did in 2004. In both 2004 and 2008, voters were asked ‘Did anyone call you or talk to you in person on behalf of either major presidential campaign about coming out to vote?’ In 2008, 13% said that the Obama campaign had contacted them while 13% reported that both campaigns had done so.

That means that 26% of voters nationwide had been contacted by the Obama campaign. This figure is the same as Kerry's contact rate among 2004 voters. In fact, nationally, the major difference between 2004 and 2008 was that the Republican contact rate dropped. In 2004, 24% of voters reported that they were contacted by the Bush campaign but in 2008, just 19% were contacted by McCain” (Schaffner).
However, on a state level, voters in highly contested states like Nevada, Colorado, and Indiana, indicated a far greater Obama contact rate than the national average, indicating that the states Mr. Obama flipped from red to blue were the states where he had larger ground initiatives than John Kerry did four years prior (Schaffner). Ohio and Florida likely had more similar contact rates to those of 2004 because Republicans had previously-established infrastructure in place to contest those states from the 2000 and 2004 elections, but lacked such an edge in the other battleground states (Schaffner). With over 770 field offices and a reported 1.5 million “active volunteers,” it’s no small wonder that Mr. McCain was outgunned on the ground (Silva).

Online Media:

Compounding the effects of the Obama campaign’s superior ground game and advertising efforts, was an internet database which was unmatched by any political campaign in American history. The three to one advantage in online investments cost Mr. Obama $14 million, but it was an advantage which provided a distinct edge.
“The apparent backbone of Obama's innovative approach to motivating voters was his creative use of technology. More specifically, the campaign's incorporation of databases -- empowering targeted efforts from direct mailings, to providing canvassers with up-to-date information so they could knock on doors of millions of possible swing voters” (Wagner).
When you visited the official Obama campaign website, you were confronted by a "continue" button which prompted you to voluntarily offer your demographic information, including your zip code and e-mail address (Wagner). The Obama Campaign aggregated this information from millions of web visitors and formed databases which allowed the operation to enlist thousands of volunteers which had been previously untouched by the standard “field offices” (Wagner). These newfound volunteers were encouraged to make financial contributions to the campaign and to make campaign phone calls from the comfort and privacy of their homes – which utilized “call lists” that were also generated via the internet-fueled databases (Wagner). These databases would also generate targeted mailing, texting, robo-calling, and e-mailing lists (Wagner).

The Obama campaign sent out hundreds of thousands of e-mails a day which also included links to donate to the campaign (Wagner). Since winning the election, the Obama campaign has suggested it will continue to keep in touch with volunteers and supporters through text messaging, e-mails, and weekly youtube addresses reminiscent of FDR’s “fireside chats” (Wagner).

It would be difficult to quantify the relative worth of Mr. Obama’s internet endeavors, but one thing that is certain is that his efforts were matched, if not doubled, by the addition of over 300 celebrity endorsements (documented on Wikipedia), and over 1,300 songs and music videos mentioning Mr. Obama in a positive way (documented on a YouTube channel duly named “Obama Songs”). These songs include such celebrity productions as: Ludacris, "Politics as Usual;” Malik Yusef [FT. Kanye West and Adam Levine], "Promised Land;" Big Boi [FT. Mary J. Blige], "Something’s Gotta Give;" Young Jeezy [FT. Nas], "My President;" Jay-Z, "A Billi;" Nas, "Black President;" V.I.C., “Get Silly;” and Common, "The People."

Conversely, Mr. McCain’s Wikipedia list of total campaign endorsements was about 1/5 the size of Mr. Obama’s, with just about 1/6 the amount of celebrity entertainer endorsements. Whether these lists are accurate or not is debatable, but what is not debatable is the effects on perception each had the potential to create on web users – much like the potential effect of Mr. Obama’s four to one advertising advantage.

Mr. McCain had similar shortcomings with the music industry and its influence on the internet. Not only did Mr. McCain not have 1,300 songs created worldwide in his honor, he didn’t even have a YouTube channel for the songs that he did get; which included just two “mainstream” songs: John Rich, “Raising McCain” and Hank Williams Jr., “Family Tradition [Remake].” And, in a stark contrast to the music industry’s support for the Obama campaign, Chuck Berry, Abba, Orleans, John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, Heart, Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Foo Fighters, and Survivor all voiced public disapproval regarding the McCain campaign’s use of their music (Caballero).

Traditional Media:

Perhaps Mr. McCain’s reluctance to invest in print media stemmed from the fact that newspapers tend to favor the liberal candidate. This idea was certainly reinforced in this election when over 160 major newspapers openly endorsed Mr. Obama, and even college newspapers preferred the democratic candidate by a rate of 63 to 1 (McNeill).

These endorsements are not distinct from Mr. Obama’s advertising efforts, as Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, mentions in her 2000 book, Everything You Think You Know About Politics and Why You’re Wrong, “The effect of newspaper endorsements is largely created through advertising about them that is sponsored by the candidate.” This speaks to the idea that the endorsements don’t matter quite as much as a candidate’s ability to publicize them.

Even still, there was a quantifiable bias within the news media which favored Mr. Obama. In a 2007 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press study, four times as many journalists identified themselves as “liberal” than conservative. This study found:
“Only six percent (of journalists and news executives at national outlets) said they considered themselves conservatives and only two percent said they were very conservative. This compares with 36 percent of the overall population that describes itself as conservative. Most journalists, 53 percent, said they're moderate. 24 percent said they were liberal and eight percent very liberal. Only 19 percent of the public consider themselves liberal.” (
In a poll of voters conducted by Rasmussen Reports on Election Day, 51% said most reporters tried to help Barack Obama win the presidency and just seven percent thought they tried to help John McCain (Rasmussen Reports, Nov. 4, 2008).

A different PEW study found that just over a third of the news stories about Mr. Obama were clearly positive in tone (36%), while a similar number (35%) were neutral or mixed and a smaller number (29%) were negative (Project for Excellence in Journalism October 22, 2008). By comparison, for Mr. McCain, nearly six in ten of the stories studied were decidedly negative in nature (57%), while fewer than two in ten (14%) were positive (Project for Excellence in Journalism October 22, 2008).

In another telephone survey done by Rasmussen Reports, fifty-five percent of respondents said the media coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign was more biased than in previous election years (Rasmussen Reports, Oct. 16, 2008).

A joint survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, found that the media are sympathetic to Democrats and hostile to Republicans (Investor’s Business Daily, Nov. 01, 2008). A 2004 study done by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press agreed with the idea of a liberal-leaning media, noting that a majority of journalists identified themselves as being liberal.
“The fact that journalists--especially national journalists--are more likely than in the past to describe themselves as liberal reinforces the findings of the major academic study on this question, namely that of David H. Weaver and G. Cleveland Wilhoit, in their series of books ‘The American Journalist’” (Pew Research Center, May 23 2004).
The lean of the media had an effect on voter perception as well. Media Tenor International ran content analyses on all of the election coverage and found that, not only did the media give more favorable coverage to Mr. Obama, but that the more the media favored him, the larger his lead grew in opinion polls (Media Tenor).

Some suggest that the political lean of the media is a reflection of public opinion, and not the primary influence of it (Riley). Yet, despite the far left lean of the media and the result of the election, CNN exit polls suggest that more Americans identify themselves as conservative (34%) than liberal (21%); these figures are identical to 2004 (CNN Exit Polls). These findings contradict the suggestion that media reflects rather than affects, for one would expect that a self-professed conservative population, if left to its own devices, would vote for the more conservative candidate. Clearly, that is not what happened.

Television News Media:

With the growing influence of the internet, traditional media have to go to increasingly greater lengths to get ratings. It’s important to note that the news media in America function within the same free-market capitalism faced by any other American business. This means that, above all else, a news organization must get ratings to exist (Garfield). Without ratings, there is no advertising, and without advertising, there is no news (Garfield). This means that a news organization’s “journalistic integrity” is subsumed by their bottom line.

In this way, many news organizations are anything but “news organizations.” In an age of niched instant gratification, every medium must offer something unique to their customers or risk being replaced. Typically, a business offers its customers what it thinks they want, or so says the principle of supply and demand. Conversely, according to the “uses and gratifications” theory, a customer watches the news media which reinforces their pre-existent beliefs and values. This, of course, creates a vicious cycle where it becomes impossible to tell where the wants and desires of the costumer begins and the influence of the media ends.

In many respects, the television news media reflected this premise. In the same Rasmussen Reports study which said that 55% of people felt that the media were more biased in this election than the one in 2004, 51% of people said MSNBC was biased for Mr. Obama, 46% said CNN was biased for Mr. Obama, and just 39% said FOX News was biased for Mr. McCain (Rasmussen Reports, Oct. 16, 2008). This is consistent with the viewer demographics of each of those networks, as indicated in a different Rasmussen Reports study which showed that 87% of Fox News viewers said they were likely to vote for McCain, while those who watch CNN and MSNBC planned to support Obama in November by more than two-to-one (Rasmussen Reports, Aug. 6, 2008).

This model of uses and gratifications goes far beyond mere perception. Statistically, these cable news networks reported stories in virtual lock step with their viewership preference. The Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism found that 40% of the. Obama stories FOX News did during the election were negative (Project for Excellence in Journalism, Oct. 29, 2008). FOX News also gave 40% of its McCain stories a negative spin (Project for Excellence in Journalism, Oct. 29, 2008). 25% of FOX News’ stories about Mr. Obama were positive, and just 22% of Mr. McCain were positive (Project for Excellence in Journalism, Oct. 29, 2008).

This information is a bit deceiving though, as it appears FOX News went against the uses and gratifications model by favoring Mr. Obama when their viewership clearly favored Mr. McCain. However, when one takes into context the other news network coverage of the election, it’s easy to see that FOX did in fact offer more favorable news/ less unfavorable for John McCain than did any other cable news network.

MSNBC stood out for having less negative coverage of Mr. Obama than any other network (Project for Excellence in Journalism, Oct. 29, 2008). 14% of their stories were negative for Mr. Obama, but for Mr. McCain, 73% of its coverage was negative (Project for Excellence in Journalism, Oct. 29, 2008). That's about 5:1 in favor of Mr. Obama. CNN was more balanced than MSNBC, but still showed a very markable liberal lean. 39% of its stories about Mr. Obama were negative, and 61% of its stories about McCain were negative (Project for Excellence in Journalism, Oct. 29, 2008). That's nearly 3:2 in favor of Obama.

These numbers correlate closely with the respective channel’s viewership’s candidate preference. So the question remains, does the media drive opinion or vice versa?

Again, Media Tenor International ran content analyses on all of the election coverage and found that, not only did the media give more favorable coverage to Mr. Obama, but that the more the media favored him, the larger his lead grew in opinion polls (Media Tenor). Significant in these findings is the fact that opinion followed coverage. Media Tenor used what they called a “slant-o-meter” to track the Gallop poll numbers relative to the television coverage of the two campaigns.

While looking at the yellow line (indicating TV tone) and the blue bars (indicating Mr. Obama’s poll leads), it’s clear to see that trends in tone preceded trends in opinion. This suggests that the media have a profound influence on perception and, moreover, that the media’s coverage of the election favored Mr. Obama and therefore influenced opinion in favor of Mr. Obama.


This literary review is not an analysis of the candidates’ policies. It is a look at the information which has been published regarding the quantifiable media factors which attributed to Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 Presidential Election. Of these factors, campaign finance and preferential treatment from the news media were the two broadest and most influential.

Barack Obama’s decision to opt out of his promise to use the federal campaign finance system, offered him a distinct and insurmountable financial advantage over John McCain which affected every aspect of their campaigns, from staff salaries to broadcast media investments. While Mr. Obama innovated several mass marketing techniques (such as his internet databases, YouTube fireside chats, and advertisements with Xbox), none of these would have been possible without the appropriate funding. Had John McCain possessed equal or greater funding, it’s likely that Barack Obama would have had a fiercer fight for the attention of the traditional media and would have therefore neglected some of the newer approaches used in this campaign. Even his purchase of 30 minutes of major network airtime was only possible because he had the money for it and knew the Mr. McCain did not.

Whether independent of or resulting from Obama’s incredible advertising spending, the favorable coverage from the news media played a major role in influencing public opinion about him. If one were to quantify Mr. Obama's media coverage in advertising worth, I have no doubt that the amount of time, space and quality of his media coverage far exceeded that of his paid advertisements. Considering the fact that Barack Obama spent more on advertising than any two candidates combined in the history of American politics, that’s saying something. Yet, this is the major point and purpose of the Public Relations field, is it not? -To influence public opinion through the news media.

Irrespective of the issues, Barack Obama ran a media-savvy campaign. He understood the roles of traditional and new media relative to his needs, and he utilized the means available to him, perhaps, better than any modern politician ever has.


Baker, Brent (March 19, 2008). Four Times More Journalists Identify as Liberal Than Conservative. NewsBusters.
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Burkeman, Oliver (October 30, 2008). Obama, the infomercial: A 30-minute pitch to America. The Guardian.
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Byline, Alison (November 3, 2008). College Newspapers Endorse Obama Over McCain, 63 to 1. U.S. News & World Report.
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Caballero, Douglas (October 28, 2008). Musicians Love McCain.
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CNN Exit Polling, 2008:

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Kolawole, Emi (November 3, 2008). Who spent more money on advertising, McCain or Obama?
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Nielson Wire:

November 3, 2008. 33.5 Million Viewers Watched Obama’s Infomercial.
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October 30, 2008. In Philly and Tampa, Viewers Chose Baseball Over Obama.
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Rasmussen Reports (November 04, 2008). Majority Say Reporters Tried To Help Obama.
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Snyder, Pete (November 05, 2008). How Obama Killed ‘Election Day’ and Became President. Advertising Age.
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The Center for Responsive Politics (December 03, 2008). Expenditures Breakdown.

For Barack Obama:

For John McCain:

Wagner, Dan (November 7, 2008). Obama Ground Game: A Technology Machine.
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List of Barack Obama presidential campaign endorsements, 2008.,_2008#Entertainment

List of John McCain presidential campaign endorsements, 2008.,_2008



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