Top 10 Reasons Obama Defeated Clinton for the Democratic Nomination
Now that the outcome of the battle for the Democratic nomination has been settled beyond a reasonable doubt, it's worth looking systematically at the major factors that gave victory to Obama. After all, fifteen months ago, conventional wisdom viewed Obama as an audacious long shot. The very idea of a first-term African American senator with a name like Barack Obama defeating the vaunted Clinton machine seemed preposterous.
Here are my Top Ten reasons why lightning struck in the contest for the 2008 Democratic nomination (apologies to David Letterman ):
#10. Great Team. Obama assembled a great team that could work together. He stayed away from lobbyist insiders like Clinton's Mark Penn or McCain's Charlie Black, and choose political professionals who are committed to progressive values like David Plouffe, David Axelrod, Steve Hildebrand and Paul Tewes. From the first he insisted on one key rule: no drama. There was little of the infighting and division in the Obama operation that ate away at the Clinton campaign. Clinton had many capable staffers and consultants, but Penn's divisive leadership style and failures as a strategist doomed the campaign organization to dysfunction. When the brilliant Geoff Garin was tapped to succeed Penn as Chief Strategist in April, it was simply too late.
#9. All-State Strategy. Mark Penn was convinced that Clinton could sew up the nomination by Super Tuesday focusing only on the big states. In fact, some have reported that he mistakenly believed that California had a "winner take all" primary. Obama's team hunted for delegates in every nook and cranny of America -- especially in the caucus states that Clinton really didn't contest. Obama ran an active, on-the-ground campaign in every contest, from California to Guam. As a consequence, as one anonymous Clinton insider reports, Clinton lost the nomination in February after Obama ran the table in 11 straight states.
#8. No Plan B. The Clinton campaign had no fall-back plan when it failed to capture the nomination on February 5. There was no money, no organization and no plan to contest the states that lie in the land beyond Super Tuesday.
#7. Excellence in Execution: Great Field. Obama ran the best field operation in American political history -- particularly in the all important Iowa Caucuses. His campaign left no stone unturned, or a vote on the table, in any state. It opened offices everywhere, hired and trained great staff, and managed through simple, streamlined structures. It would have been easy for Obama to squander the massive influx of volunteers who were mobilized through his inspirational message. But the campaign developed structures to integrate and effectively use volunteers, both on the ground and through the Internet. In particular, it developed highly sophisticated new Internet tools to allow volunteers around the country to participate meaningfully in voter ID and get out the vote operations.
#6. Explosive Obama Fundraising. Obama's ability to compete everywhere, to build great field structures and to out-communicate Clinton in the paid media rested squarely on the massive fundraising operation. Obama's traditional fundraising program ended up matching the vaunted Clinton fundraising machine. But the newly developed Internet operation provided a massive advantage. So far Obama has recruited over one-and-a-half-million donors. In other words, by the time the primary season ends, almost one of every ten Obama primary voters (so far there have been 16.3 million) will have made a financial contribution to his campaign. That is beyond unprecedented.
#5. Obama Out-Communicated Clinton Using One Consistent Message. Obama's message has been consistent from Day One. Clinton lurched from "experienced insider" to "populist outsider" from Margaret Thatcher-like "Iron Lady" to a "victim being bullied." And of course, Obama's huge small-donor-driven fundraising advantage gave him the ability to out-communicate her in the paid media -- often by a factor of two-to-one.
#4. Hope and Inspiration trumped Fear and Anger. A core element of that Obama message has always been hope and inspiration. Early on, John Edwards hit an important cord of populist anger that is critical to any successful Democratic campaign. Right now especially, people want their leaders to be populist outsiders not "competent" insiders. But Edwards was unable to resolve that anger into hope. Obama touched the anger but also held out possibility. When Hillary "found her voice" as the fighting populist at the end of the campaign, she tapped into anger as well. She didn't hesitate to play the fear card -- both when it came to foreign policy, and by channeling the Republican frame that "elitist professional types" are trying to destroy your way of life. But she never managed to inspire and resolve that fear into hope.
Inspiration is the one political message that simultaneously persuades swing voters and motivates mobilizable voters who rarely come to the polls. The North Carolina landslide provided a striking example of how inspiration can generate massive mobilization at the same time it appeals to independent swing voters.
#3. Unity Trumped Division. Obama showed that appeals to division -- whether from elements that stirred up fear that a "black candidate couldn't win" -- or from his former pastor -- could be overcome by America's overwhelming hunger for unity. Americans -- and particularly young Americans -- are sick of Republican appeals based on the things that divide us, particularly race. It isn't 1988 anymore. A whole generation has passed from the scene and been replaced by young people who simply don't get the passions that allowed the fear of "Willie Horton" to decide the 1988 presidential race.
#2. Change Trumped Experience. Clinton Chief Strategist Mark Penn's fundamental strategic error was to position Clinton as the "Experience" candidate, when America desperately wanted change. Eighty percent of the voters think America is on the wrong track. They want change in general -- and most importantly, they want change in the way special interests dominate Washington. Mark Penn, the consummate lobbyist-insider himself embodied the very thing people believe is wrong in Washington. It's no wonder he made this catastrophic strategic blunder.
#1. Obama is an Extraordinary Candidate. Inspirational, articulate, brilliant, funny, attractive and naturally empathetic -- his history as a community organizer, his experience abroad, his beautiful family, accomplished wife, and adorable kids: Obama is the kind of candidate any campaign manager would want in any year. But he is perfect for this year. While the Clintons represented the Bridge to the 21st Century, Obama is the 21st century. His own, multi-cultural story is the future of America. As the campaign tested him, he showed he was cool, deliberate and effective under fire.
In the end, people vote for people. Campaigns are ultimately about the qualities of candidates --about whether or not people want them to be their leaders. Potentially, Barack Obama could become an historic, transformational leader. But John McCain has many qualities that are attractive to swing voters as well. Nothing is preordained. Now it will be up to every Democrat, every Progressive, to take advantage of this historic opportunity to make Barack Obama the American President who leads the world into a new progressive era of unprecedented possibility.