Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama's Keys to Victory

What were the keys to Obama's victory last night? I have my ideas. Here they are (though not in order of importance because honestly, I couldn't say which had more impact than others, at least not enough to rank them):

  • The economy: Obama experienced some "luck" in this regard. What was horrendous for us was great for his campaign, as the rapid acceleration of the global financial meltdown absolutely swamped the McCain campaign. McCain, already percieved as weaker on the economy than matters of national security and foreign policy, was at a loss for what to do when the crisis broke. In what is probably his second greatest gambit after picking Palin for VP, McCain rushed back to D.C., only to appear mostly irrelevant to the bailout process. Instead of undoing Obama's natural advantage as a Democrat on the economy, McCain only damaged his own standing. 

  • George Bush and the GOP: Republicans are quick to spin this election as a referendum on eight years of George Bush. The election wasn't entirely about Republican ineptitude, but any Republican candidate was going to start out behind thanks to the massive shift in the public mood against the GOP. It only hurt McCain that he was forced to play to the right-wing base in order to shore up support for his candidacy; in doing so, he only confirmed to many voters that he wouldn't be substantially different from what they'd already seen for eight years.

  • The Death of the "Southern Strategy": It's hard to say with any confidence what this election means to the electorate as a whole, except in one sense; it's safe to say that the "southern strategy", the practice of pandering to racist voters in the South that has been carried out by every Republican Presidential campaign since Nixon, is dying if not already dead. The Republican party played this strategy to the hilt. Not only did Republican campaigns wink and nod to the racists in their party, they came to identify the white, working-class voter (who just so happens to be racist, or at least deeply suspicious of minorities) as the "ultimate American" voter and perpetuated a culture war that attempted to define their supporters as "real" Americans and Democrats as latte-sipping "elitists." But the Republican party was trapped by its own game, forced to nominate an unqualified governor for Vice President because the base of the party, now comprised of these white voters, could only relate to someone like themselves; anti-intellectual, under-educated, confidently ignorant, overtly religious, and white. Unfortunately, time and demographics have caught up to the Republican party. Voters comfortable with these tactics now tend to reside largely in the south and the plains states; what only two years ago was a region that was ceded in advance by Democrats, is now overnight the only safe region that Republicans can count on. If the Republican party continues to identify itself as primarily the party of these voters and continues to value the votes of it's poorer whites above other groups of voters, it will become at best a regional party incapable of fashioning a coalition sufficient to win national election.

  • Sarah Palin: Speaking of playing to the base...McCain's greatest gambit was his selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. The move was a blatant pandering to the right-wing base of the Republican party and although it energized the party faithful, it turned off swing voters and right-leaning Dems in droves. The McCain campaign sensed-probably rightly-that a safe, conservative campaign wouldn't be enough against Obama, and they had a serious enthusiasm gap to deal with. Unfortunately for them, the enthusiasm Sarah Palin generated could not hope to make up for the negative effect it had on the McCain campaign as a whole.

  • The McCain campaign: Often, it appears that McCain's worst enemy was himself, or at least, his campaign advisors. McCain's advisors could never quite decide what they wanted to sell to the public. Part of the problem was they could never quite settle on what issue would damage Obama the most, largely because no attacks that they mounted gained any traction (for example Iraq, which was largely negated as an issue in the campaign.) At the same time, those attacks failed to gain traction in part because the campaign never gave them time to work. The Bush campaign in '04 settled on one strategy; identify Kerry's weaknesses and attack them relentlessly from beginning to end. But the McCain campaign could never quite figure out what they wanted people to like least about Obama; his associations, his ideology, his lack of experience, his anti-American leanings, etc., etc. Indeed it was a laundry list of things voters were supposed to reject, but the only thing McCain apparently asked them to embrace was his "experience." It wasn't enough. The McCain campaign was also extremely undisciplined. In the weeks leading up to the election we heard McCain's advisors make pronouncements about how they couldn't win if the election was about the economy as well as throw each other and Palin under the bus in anonymous quotes in major news articles. None of this gave Americans the impression that the McCain campaign had any idea what if was doing, and I think in large part Americans attributed this failing to McCain himself; his inability to pick quality advisors reflected on his judgment. That contrasts with....

  • The Obama Campaign: It is generally agreed that Obama and his advisors ran a nearly flawless campaign. There were no serious gaffes, crises were dispatched hastily, advisors who appeared in the media were disciplined and on message, the grassroots organization was light-years beyond anything we've seen to this point, the 50-state strategy was bold and effective, and the message to the public was short, memorable and convincing. Obama credited his two most senior advisors in his speech last night, David Axelrod and David Plouffe, and he was right to do so; the two men engineered the kind of campaign that Joe Trippi could only dream about. The Obama campaign was essentially the anti-Rove campaign; instead of the 50+1 approach, Obama's campaign fought for votes in every state of the union. The landslide victory, and the political implications thereof (a mandate far beyond anything Rove ever hoped for) are the direct result. Of course, it would be criminal to overlook the literally millions of people who contributed or volunteered on Obama's behalf. The Obama campaign may have known exactly how to harness that power and enthusiasm, but it was these volunteers, many young, some old, all fired up for Obama, that delivered the votes to make this victory a landslide. 

  • Barack Obama: Of coure, Americans did not turn out to vote for Obama's campaign; they turned out to vote for Obama. They are not likely to regret their choice. Obama demonstrated through the two-year long campaign that he was cool, level-headed, possessed of great equanimity, poised, well-spoken, intelligent and thoughtful. The reason many of the McCain campaigns attacks failed to work against Obama is because each time Obama appeared in the public eye, he demonstrated attributes in opposition to the ones McCain tried to paint him with. At no time was this more evident than in the flap over Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama proved to America that he was a different kind of politician when he turned the crisis, which threatened to derail his campaign, into an opportunity to confront the issue of race head-on in one of the most masterful political speeches of the modern era. In his speech Obama was direct, considered, and sincere. He treated the public as adults who could handle a frank discussion about race from a national figure, and he was not wrong. America has rewarded him in turn.

And so those are my thoughts. But I'm sure there are many things I'm leaving out. Your comments are welcome.

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