Obama saw an opportunity — and positioned himself to take it

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 4, 2008 

CHICAGO — "You don't need to boo, you just need to vote," Barack Obama told his crowds in the final days of the race when they reacted to his opponent's name.

That line embodied two premises of Obama's presidential campaign, from its unlikely inception in February 2007 to victory Tuesday night.

First: That a backlash against President Bush would be sufficient to drive white swing voters into the arms of a first-term, biracial senator with liberal Chicago roots who promised change, bipartisanship, an end to the Iraq war and an outside-Washington ethic.

Second: That the conventional wisdom that young, minority and poor people can't be counted on to vote was a symptom of previous candidates who didn't try hard enough.

"You don't win presidential elections because you pick the time," Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod said in a wide-ranging interview on the campaign plane three days before election night. "The times pick you," Axelrod said. "He seemed to match the times."

How'd Obama do it?

Charisma, message, organization and timing were crucial. But nothing was more telling than the 90 percent of Americans who told pollsters all year that they thought the country was on the "wrong track." Voters wanted change. Obama made himself an image of change that people thought they could trust.

Obama's kickoff in Springfield, Ill., drew inevitable comparisons to Abraham Lincoln. Ted and Caroline Kennedy's endorsements set him up as successor to JFK — young, charismatic and different. Arguably, Obama's mixed racial background as the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas also helped him win. While it doubtless cost him some white votes, it appealed to others and energized minority voters as no white nominee could.

In addition, Obama benefited enormously from an innovative and meticulously managed campaign organization led by David Plouffe. It attracted millions of volunteers and may have raised close to $700 million. Plouffe emphasized winning caucuses as well as primaries, and in the general election, he had the resources to run a 50-state campaign.

The campaign even enlisted help from recording artists and a fashion industry that made Obama a pop-culture brand. It drew from new-media gurus who put their careers on hold to help out. They lured millions to an innovative Web site that helped them find their polling places, or campaign events, or buy merchandise, then stored their contact information and barraged them with personalized solicitations for money and help.

They used this network to send volunteers from safe states to Republican areas to build support. They preprinted cards with the telephone numbers of registered voters and asked people who came to Obama rallies to make calls from the stadium while they awaited his arrival.

Another factor, beyond the campaign's control but nonetheless major, was that Obama's opponents' campaigns were flawed.

Democrat Hillary Clinton underestimated the strength of Obama's organizations in Iowa and other caucus states and overestimated her own stature. Her initial message that she was "ready on Day One" also failed to resonate enough with an electorate hungry for change from familiar faces from the past.

In the general election, Republican John McCain's campaign was often at odds internally. His courtship of his party's base, through hardening his stance on immigration and tapping Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, cost him much of his longstanding appeal to independents. His attempts to paint Obama as a socialist or terrorist sympathizer overreached, and even backfired.

In the end, McCain's fumbling during the panic on Wall Street in September may have been his most damaging moment.

"I think the most critical juncture of the general election campaign was between Sept. 15 and Sept. 27, from the beginning of the financial controversy through the first debate," Axelrod said. "I think the campaign changed there in a way that fundamentally altered the dynamic, and I think that dynamic held from that point forward.

"Obama looked like someone who was grounded, who was focused on the issue, who was thinking about it," Axelrod said. "McCain looked flighty and fickle, and jumping from one position to another. One guy looked like the president and the other guy didn't."

A few tactical decisions along the way were critical. Obama dealt with concerns head-on about how his race shaped his ideas in a nationally televised speech. He dumped his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and then his church, after the controversy over some of Wright's sermons blew up in the spring. McCain chose not to re-ignite the divisive issue in the fall, although the Republican Party resurrected Wright in the final days before the election.

Staging a tour this summer to the Middle East and Western Europe, including the Berlin rally where he drew an estimated 200,000 people — his largest crowd before election night — also was a calculation. Obama risked being seen as presumptuous, and indeed, polling immediately after the trip showed the race tightening. But he and his aides also knew that he was considered weak on foreign policy, and if the trip was successful, images of him with foreign leaders and supporters could establish that he was taken seriously globally.

Obama's choice of Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden — while limiting Biden's access to the media to minimize Biden's tendency to talk faster than he thought — also helped. Out of the spotlight, Biden worked his way across Pennsylvania and Ohio, where he was able to relate to the white, working-class voters Obama had difficulty reaching — whether because of his race or his Ivy League education.

Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political scientist, said he saw a pattern to Obama's style that helped him win. Scala called it Obama's "coolness under pressure."

"The self-discipline of the campaign, I think, has been remarkable," Scala said. "The unwillingness to panic, the unwillingness to buckle when everyone is saying you're doing the wrong thing. In the primaries everyone was saying he couldn't close the deal, but they stuck to their plan.

"In the general election, he didn't have a very good summer and things were looking perilous, but they stuck with the plan. He had enough ego to say 'I'd rather do it without the Clintons.' His debate performances were steady, and it played well among voters. I think that impressed voters, that they said, 'We can turn things over to this guy.' Obama's in a similar situation to Ronald Reagan in 1980: The country wanted change, but could they trust this person? His performance in the debates aided in that."

When Obama's grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who raised him for much of his childhood, died on the last day of the campaign, his coolness was tested anew. His announcement of her passing at a rally in Charlotte, N.C., was tender, but he turned on a dime to critique McCain as too close to President Bush. It was only after the event that most reporters in his traveling press corps learned that, as he was speaking, tears were streaming down his face.

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