National campaigns are about Change v. Experience/Establishment. This is particularly true of presidential campaigns. Change or Establishment is the dominant narrative of any campaign – either you represent a break from the way things are, or you are more of the same. The narrative must be backed up by the appropriate set of policies, of course (as John McCain may well soon discover), but the essential policies of Democratic and Republican candidates haven't changed significantly since the 1960s and 1970s – Dems in favor of a higher tax burden on the wealthy, increased government spending on social programs, soft power abroad, and regulation for the social good (clean air standards, for example). Republicans have been low taxes for the wealthy, less government spending, hard power, and deregulation (except in a few key areas to do with 'moral values').
There have been alterations, of course, on a campaign-by-campaign basis – the addition of universal health care to the standard Dem candidate platform was this year's big new thing - but the party brands have been around for at least thirty years. And during that time there have been three Democratic presidential terms and five Republican – hardly a clear indication that the voters strongly prefer one set of policies to another, particularly as, counting from 1976
(the first post-1968 incarnation of both Parties), presidential terms went Carter-Reagan-Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Clinton-Bush-Bush.
The difference is the voters' appetite for Change. The calculus here is a hard one. Economic factors play a role (1992), but not always (the campaign cycle of 1999-2000 was at the end of eight years of prosperity, but 2000 was a Change election and Gore never seized the
Change mantle). National security can be the issue (2002, a midterm, was, I would argue, that greatest incarnation of an Establishment Election – 'vote with the Administration or something terrible will happen', a message tried less successfully in 2006, a Change year). 1980 was a Change year, but four years after Morning in America, Reagan had become Establishment, and voters still wanted more (1988). Neither party has a lock on Change (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and GW Bush were Change candidates), or Establishment (the same cast all ran
as Establishment candidates, as did GHW Bush).
It is up to the candidate and Campaign to gauge whether an election is a Change year or an Establishment year, and to brand accordingly. Pick the former, and your constant mantra is 'change', said as often as the candidate's name (preferably more often). Play down the candidate's existing record, and talk about the future. Pick the latter, and your words are 'experienced', 'tested', etc. Play up the record, and talk about past successes – your candidate has been there before. Pick wrong, and the best candidate does NOT win (think 2000 – Supreme Court or not, the result was close enough to be adjudicated not because Bush was Gore's equal, but because he was the Change voters wanted).
More later. I leave you with this, from David Plouffe:
“John McCain jettisoned his message and his strategy. It is now about change. We’re going to lean into that very, very hard.”