The Making of the Presidency, 2008


How Barack Obama Won: A State-by-State Guide to the Historic 2008 Presidential Election
By Chuck Todd and Sheldon Gawiser, 272 pgs, Vintage, 2009. $10.36

The presidential election of 2008 was in many ways historic—if not transformational—in nature. The first surprise was the decision that Senator Barrack Obama of Illinois would challenge front runner Senator Hillary Clinton of New York. She was, by all polls and in the view of all talking heads, the front runner in the Democratic Party. She gave no real opening speech while Obama actually gave a speech in February 2007 from the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield Illinois, acknowledging the memory of Abraham Lincoln. He struck a theme that would prove to be one of the most salient in the public mind—change.

The Democrat debates let the candidates drown on, but Clinton, in an unfortunate exchange, bounced back and forth on an opportunistic answer on a New York state proposal to give drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants. Obama was mediocre in the give and take of debates, but nonetheless in giving a set speech he was superb and he electrified the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner in November 2007 in front of 10,000 party activities. When Obama overwhelmingly carried white Iowa, he suddenly became very viable which forced African-American politicians who had jumped on board with Hillary to re-think their positions. Black voters were loyal but unenthusiastic in their support of the Democrats. Obama began to convey a sense of optimism and enthusiasm, the only candidate who raised people’s attention span. As much as the Clintons hated to admit it, the liberal media, as a group, favored Obama—much to the anger of feminist leaders and columnists who thought they had their own history in the making.

It is easy to make light of Oprah Winfred with her daily sympathies, but she was an important factor in getting Obama known in the heavily black South Carolina. She visibly approved of him and gave him credibility with some middle-aged female voters. Unfortunately Bill Clinton’s dismissive attitude toward Obama—the how dare Obama run against his heir apparent and long suffering wife—came off sour. Clinton was a friend of the African American peoples. Why were they pushing them away? He was dissing Obama. The key to Obama’s success in South Carolina was really though the enormous commitment to television advertising. In Florida and Michigan where he did not in effect campaign and thus did not use TV, Obama ran a very distant second to Hillary.

But as Obama looked more and more viable, the Clintons began to have money troubles to the extent that she had to put in millions of their own money. Also the Clintons with all their talented staff did not pay attention to caucus states or to the peculiar mathematics of how the Democratic Party allocated its convention delegates. For example, Clinton carried New Jersey by a significant margin but in the end netted fewer delegates that Obama got in Idaho. The Republicans, however, believed in a winner take all system; the Democrats had this confusing proportional representation arrangement to please its pressure groups. In the important states of Ohio and Texas, Clinton won both states, but she netted only a dozen delegates after all.

As the primary campaign dragged on, Obama became a better campaigner, equal to the experienced Mrs. Clinton. On the Republican side of the house, the party stumbled from one candidate to another. The religious fundamentalists recalled the old social issues, but they were not as successful as before. Oddly, the dividing issue for other nominations was the dislocating war in Iraq. In the 2006 bi-elections, the public clearly turned away from the war, and Don Rumsfeld was soon gone—but so was the Republican control of the Congress. Obama ran on the left on the war, placing himself as more of a critic than Clinton or Joe Biden of Delaware.

The same happened in the Republican Party. Senator John McCain of Arizona was clearer and more persistent on the need to continue, if not enhance, the war effort. But ironically, as the final campaign began, the war receded in our horizon which was perhaps due to the Pentagon’s siege strategy. Other issues soon took our attention.

The quiet issue was of course color. In an America with its troubled history of race relations, would Americans elect an African American to its highest office? White Americans seemed to have grown wary of affirmative action, poverty programs, racial presences, and the legacy of the reformist 1960s. But Obama addressed race by not dealing with it. Eventually, through the rantings of his old pastor, Obama was finally forced to face the issue of race the way John Kennedy faced the issue of religion in 1960: in front of the Houston ministers.

About 7% of the white votes said that race might be a problem, but also considerations of race encouraged black and Hispanic voters to register and vote. In November, Obama carried 95% of the black vote and 62% of the Hispanic vote. Whites went for Mc Cain, 55-43, but Obama still received a higher percentage than did Senator John Kerry four years before

Thus, while race may have been a bit of a drag for Obama, McCain may have faced an equal problem with age. At 72, he would have been the oldest man elected to the presidency. Obama won two thirds of the 18-29 year old vote; 52% of age 30-44; 50% of age 45-54; and 45% of those over 65. The age issue was accentuated by McCain’s choice for vice president—Governor Sarah Palin, an attractive and politically ignorant naïf meant to please the right wing of the party. Polls showed that she did generate enthusiasm among the party faithful, but serious doubts were raised about her ability to take over for McCain if need be. The age issue came front and center.

What McCain did was to magnify his own greatest liability. Instead of talking about his heroic history, his domestic fight over federal excesses, and his support of the federal funding of elections, he played to his weakness.

In a normal race, it is doubtful if the Republicans could get a third term in the White House. But this was not a normal election. Obama seemed to stall in the summer. It was of course the collapse of the economy that seemed to underscore the Bush failings, and the lack of Republican alternatives. Obama’s election was to a large extent a triumph of the Democrats in the suburbs, once healthy territory for the GOP. New Jersey is seen as a precursor of that trend. It has gone Democrat with 51% of the Jersey independent voter. Todd and Gawiser have concluded that “the GOP’s Suburban Collapse Began here.” As in this fairly affluent, heavily multicultural state, the GOP will have difficulties as the nation gets more ethnically diverse.


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