Capping an improbably meteoric rise from the Illinois Senate, Barack Obama rode an insurgent campaign to victory last night in the Democratic presidential nominating contest.
Obama won in much the same way as Jimmy Carter had done in 1976: with a disciplined team that understood the mood of the country and the implications of changing political circumstances. By exploiting the potential of the internet as a tool for organizing, mobilizing, and fundraising, he ran the first true campaign of the 21st century.
Hillary Clinton finished with a flourish, working tirelessly to win the majority of the final 15 contests. She became the tribune, not only for older women, but also for millions of less-educated Americans who are at risk of being left behind in the new economy. When the history of the 2008 campaign is written, however, it may concentrate on her errors—in particular, her campaign’s misallocation of resources, its fatal assumption that the contest would be over by February 5, and its inexplicable neglect of the states that chose delegates through caucuses rather than primaries.
Obama now faces a number of key challenges—to reunify a divided party, to select a vice presidential nominee who can help him win and govern, to organize a national convention that emphasizes the themes and priorities of the fall campaign, and most of all, to pivot from his party nomination success to the strategy and tactics he will need to prevail in November’s general election. Obama and his team carefully studied Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign as a model for their own. The Obama strategists might also pay attention to the lessons of 1976: despite creating enthusiasm early on, the Carter campaign was markedly less effective in the general election than in the nominating contest, losing nearly all of the massive lead it enjoyed after the Democratic convention.
Winning the nomination in a party unified on basic issues, as the Democrats were this year, is one thing; winning a general election in a polarized nation is quite another. On the issues that matter most to the electorate this year—the economy, Iraq and health care—the two parties and their nominees are as starkly divided as they have been in many years.
Obama’s “post-partisan” appeal and John McCain’s reputation as a bi-partisan maverick presage a battle for the center of the electorate. To be sure, independents and untethered voters are likely to matter more this year than they did in 2000 and 2004. But each candidate is likely to vie for this portion of the electorate, not by tacking toward it, but rather by doing his best to render the other unacceptable. Obama is already arguing that McCain represents a continuation of the pariah-like Bush administration. McCain has begun painting Obama as an extreme liberal, naïve on foreign policy and out of touch with average Americans—in short, as the second coming of George McGovern, which few Americans want either.
Seldom have basic circumstances so strongly favored one party. A discredited two-term incumbent, a flagging economy, an unpopular war, a historically large gap in party identification—these and other factors point toward a sweeping Democratic victory this fall. On the other side of the scales are McCain’s experience and credibility, the American people lack of familiarity with Obama, and the unpredictable dynamic of the first African-American presidential nominee. 2008 is sure to be an historic, hard-fought election campaign that will reveal a great deal about who we are, as a nation and as a people, early in the 21st century.