Thursday, November 13, 2008

Why Obama won

By Vivid writer: Daniel Jianu

Daniel Jianu analyses how Barack Obama overcame race, inexperience and the Republican slime machine to win the US presidential election

It is difficult to overstate the significance of Barack Obama's win in the amazing, historic presidential race. He was the right person with the right message as well as with the right narrative story and the right vision for these times to become the 44th President of the United States of America. Among many turning events and people he needs to thank for his victory, particular indebtedness must be granted to Howard Dean, Hillary Clinton, the morally bankrupt conservative majority of the last 30 years, his own campaign discipline and strategy and his own boldness of character.

His improbable rise in national politics began when Obama had accurately read the mood of the Democratic primary voters better than anyone in a very long time. Before Obama, the Democratic Party leaders had the dysfunctional habit of pandering and adjusting to the conservative Republican Party pillars of the social contract and never successfully challenged the Republicans on any major issues such as Iraq and taxes, for fear of losing at the polls. They preferred to duck and avoid taking principled stands; ironically, it showed by losing one election after another. The Democrats played on a political field delineated and established by the Republicans and ran the most recent elections on the conservative terms of debate, not their own. This way the Republicans managed to successfully set the policy agenda of the country for more than 30 years.

The Republicans had the most appealing - yet ultimately, misguided - story of how the United States should function as a great nation and framed all elections around values of patriotism, family and the common man. This narrative arch was successfully deployed at the beginning of the general campaign by the Republicans so much so that right after the Republican convention, McCain was actually doing well in the polls. For a short time, he was the main driving force of the campaign and the main story of the election as Obama and his campaign played defence most of the time by having to swat down one accusation after another. Still Obama understood clearly that Democratic voters wanted leadership which was sorely lacking at the time as the Democrats caved in on Iraq and on almost all other major initiatives that the Bush administration pushed through Congress. Obama's speech at the Democratic Party Convention in 2004 showed that he saw a real opening in the present dichotomy of red/blue states by appealing to something deeper than pure ideological and cultural rhetoric. Being from outside the mainstream Washington political arena, Obama's charisma and pragmatism presented an alternative to the dire situation for the American electorate.

Nevertheless, Howard Dean was actually the first major Democratic politician to spectacularly take advantage of this leadership vacuum and almost won the primary in 2004 famously with his slogan that he represents the 'Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.' Dean was also the first to build an intense and loyal following through the internet and to translate this support into amazing fundraising accomplishments for that time. Once Dean became the head of the Democratic National Committee, he challenged the Democratic Party's usual strategy of competing in only ten or so battleground states in presidential elections. He expanded the DNC operations in all 50 states and established a network of local political operatives that in the end helped Obama tremendously by giving his campaign a leg up in states that before this election has not seen a Democratic candidate ever campaign before; indirectly he pushed the Obama campaign to take the fight into safe or leaning Republican states as well. By challenging McCain in states that usually are red and safely Republican such as Virginia, North Carolina, Missouri, and Indiana, Obama enlarged the playing field and pushed McCain and the Republican National Committee to spend money, efforts and time on defending them.

The monumental and hard-fought primary campaign against Hillary Clinton was also crucial. It forced Obama to focus on a 50-state strategy as the tight primary stretched out into all states looking for votes to put one side over the other. At the beginning, Obama's strategy was to focus solely on Iowa which is the first voting state of the Democratic primary. More importantly, Iowa is a caucus state (delegates are chosen after a series of meetings and debates, not a straight vote) which meant that the Obama campaign had to mobilise and organise his voters to an unprecedented level so as to be able to compete against Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in this white, largely farming state. His main goal was to gain the attention and the necessary momentum out of Iowa to slowly build on a victory here and peel off voters from Edwards and eventually defeat Clinton. Before Iowa, Obama's appeal to black voters was minimal as most African-Americans were strongly supporting Hillary Clinton. Obama won Iowa by mobilising young, passionate and committed voters and his first victory in the primary accomplished three main goals. First of all, he showed that an African-American candidate can win a white, farming state and put aside to a large extent the doubts about his candidacy among white voters. Secondly, he also attracted the black vote from Clinton by showing that he is not just another longshot black candidate but a credible one whose candidacy has been propelled forward by the mainly white voters of Iowa. And thirdly, the experience and the intensity of organising a caucus state provided the Obama campaign with an incredibly important blueprint for how to win the rest of the caucus states during the primary campaign, without which Obama would have been unable to clinch the nomination as Hillary won bigger and more populous states.

Obama could have had no better preparation for the presidential campaign. In many ways the primary campaign was longer, harder fought and more influential in how it established Obama as a disciplined, organised, pragmatic and bold politician. He took charge of all major controversies and scandals that were thrown at him by the Clintons. He faced the race issue straight up by addressing the Reverend Jeremiah scandal with a thoughtful, powerful speech that took the race issue off the table for the general election. He also came out of the primaries with enhanced skills that were hitherto lacking. Obama is a great speaker, but not such a great debater and at the beginning of the primary campaign during the first debates he was relatively out of his depth with Hillary Clinton commanding all the attention and presidential aura. Remarkably, Obama learned quickly and adapted profoundly by the end of the primaries as he became a much better and inspired debater. It's telling that the first real opening against the early Hillary campaign juggernaut had happened during one the debates only a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses. In this debate, Hillary was asked about the New York state governor's plan to pass a law allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driving licenses. She supported this plan initially in her response and then seemed to backtrack in the same two-minute answer. Fairly or unfairly, Obama pounced on this mistake and underlined one of the major weaknesses and sticking points of the Clinton campaign - her tendency to pander to voters and not being straight and principled on issues. This gaffe gave Obama the material to attack Hillary and slowly erode her then impressive polling advantage.

'Obama luck', as his own campaign calls it, has also played an important role in his rise from Illinois state senator to the first African-American US president. His first win for electoral office in the Illinois legislature back in 1996 was based largely on technicalities as his campaign found a number of irregular signatures on petitions belonging to his main opponent and managed to knock her off the ballot. In his run for the Senate in 2004, Obama faced almost insurmountable obstacles in his campaign but a sex scandal that forced his main opponent to drop out of the race cleared the way for Obama to become Illinois's Democratic nominee for the US senate. In the general election, his main opponent was Jack Ryan, a self-funded, well-known Republican who was the hands-down favorite to win the seat. Obama trailed him in the polls but then another sex scandal forced Ryan to drop out of the campaign as well, leaving Obama poised to win again. And so he did after the Republicans had shooed in from Maryland Alan Keys as their candidate, a candidate who had been some kind of a national joke and whose only attribute and the reason he was drafted by the Republicans was that he's black.

And so, until the presidential campaign by far the most challenging race of his political career had been the primary campaign against Hillary; his was a campaign that defined him and propelled him to an enviable position as the Republicans had fielded John McCain as their nominee, a candidate with many flaws and whose many strategic and tactical bets did not pay off. And they couldn't pay off in this extremely hostile political environment for Republicans.

The Republican majority has started to unravel slowly in the last few years. The Bush administration's innumerable failures and mismanagement of so many major issues have only accelerated this trend. American voters have stopped believing in the conservative ideology and as EJ Dionne put it so clearly in the Washington Post, "the country put a definitive end to a conservative era rooted in three myths: that a party could govern successfully while constantly denigrating government's role; that Americans were divided in an irrepressible moral conflict pitting a "real America" against some pale imitation; and that market capitalism could succeed without an active government regulating it in the public interest and modestly redistributing income to temper inequalities." For more than 30 years these conservative myths held the political debate captive to the Republican ideas as most policy initiatives were constrained and shaped by conservative assumptions. Republicans rode this ideology and rhetoric to the presidency five of seven times since 1980 and eventually into the ground as the initial conservative mantle of reform had evaporated into the thick air of corruption and systemic economic failure. People who wanted change and a new direction voted for Obama almost 90 to nine per cent. Voters even rejected the Republican mantra on national security and taxes, two issues of enduring Republican strength. The financial meltdown crystallised in one big event all that had been wrong with the decades of conservative majority and all of the Bush administration's faults and misguided policies.

And then, once again, 'Obama luck' reappeared. Just as McCain had found his footing by portraying the Democrat as an elitist and an outsider who did not share American values and took a slight lead in polls at the beginning of September, Lehman Brothers, the investment firm, went bankrupt, triggering the biggest corporate collapse in US history and an international financial meltdown, which transformed the presidential race in the favour of Obama and the Democrats. But Obama's response to the crisis went beyond luck and showed Americans that a steady, self-confident and pragmatic politician is just what's needed in times of crises. His reaction was measured, reassuring and presidential and at complete odds with McCain's (initial) decision to suspend his campaign and skip the first scheduled televising debate. This was the pivotal point of the election that structurally changed the dynamic of the race and allowed Obama to regain the upper hand and take control of the campaign. His poll numbers started increasing and since that moment never allowed the Republican candidate any openings. The financial meltdown crystallised in one big event all that had been wrong with the decades of conservative majority and all of the Bush administration's faults and misguided policies. Obama's campaign rose up to this challenge and took supreme advantage of the opportunity to run away with the election. Whereas McCain looked erratic and out of his depth, Obama showed character of conviction as the three debates cemented the Obama image of competence and pragmatism. McCain's response to the financial disaster had the most consequences. While Obama drilled down on financial issues on the campaign trail, his rival kept looking around for a message - initially saying the fundamentals of the economy were strong, then announcing plans to suspend his campaign, then dropping those plans. As the economy took centre stage, Obama had also learned from Hillary how to appeal to white working class voters. He pretty much retooled her primary message and successfully attracted voters by speaking in smaller settings, with his sleeves rolled up. He had embraced the legendary Clinton message, "it's the economy, stupid."

And he pulled it off. Amid a record voter turnout, Obama won the largest share of white support of any Democrat in a two-man race since 1976. He won 43 per cent of white voters, four percentage points below Carter's performance in 1976 and equal to what Bill Clinton won in the three-man race of 1996. Fully 96 per cent of black voters supported Obama and constituted 13 per cent of the electorate, a two per cent rise in their national turnout. As in past years, black women turned out at a higher rate than black men. A stunning 54 percent of young white voters supported Obama, compared with 44 per cent who went for McCain. It also appears youth turnout rose one per cent since 2004, to constitute 18 per cent of the electorate. Obama's victory also stretched into other key blocs won by Bush four years ago such as suburban voters, who were half of the electorate, split between Obama and McCain. Rural voters, who went for Bush by 19 points in 2004, leaned to McCain by 8 points. And married voters, who went to Bush by 15 points, leaned to McCain by 6 this year. Hispanics, who as in 2004 were 8 per cent of voters, went for Obama by more than two to one, 67 percent to 30 percent. Obama also won 84 per cent of those Democrats who backed Hillary Clinton. White independents, a fifth of voters, were roughly divided between the major party candidates, which has not occurred in a two-man race in three decades. One important swing was the Roman Catholic vote, which went 47 per cent to Sen. Kerry in 2004, compared with 53 per cent for Obama in 2008. And among voters in families earning over $200,000 a year, Senator Obama improved over Kerry by 17 points. Also helping Obama was that Democrats made up a larger share of the electorate this year than four years ago, when equal numbers of voters identified as Democrats and as Republicans. This time, 40 per cent said they were Democrats and just 32 per cent said they were Republicans.

This is Obama's base and it is a base for the future. It is a new Democratic majority of high-educated, high-income voters along with youth and minorities, reflecting forward-looking optimism and hope. It draws in new previously solid Republican suburban and ex-urban voters whose priorities are practical and economic and who got tired of old and tired cultural values and red herrings. Yes, Obama has won impressively and yes, he does inherit huge challenges that could overwhelm any leader. But the economic crisis and all its challenges afford him an opportunity granted few presidents to reshape the country's attitudes, change the terms of debate and transform American politics.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

great analysis! better, i might add, than many pieces here in the US. I agree with the point that it was a combination of luck and the ability to capitalize on that luck that led to Obama's victory