Why Obama Won

It’s already started, and over the next week or two, we’ll see ever more stories about why Obama won this election. I think many of the stories will focus on technology, and social networking, and while these things were important, I attribute his win to four factors, four things that, really, having nothing to do with technology (one of them is actually from an old media newspaper!), and everything to do with the game of politics itself — strategy and planning it takes to run a campaign. They are presented in a reverse chronology, which I also happen to think is the order of importance, too.

1. McCain’s Many Narratives

As the NYT Magazine skillfully pointed out, John McCain never could settle on a single storyline for his campaign. More importantly, he could never settle on a single line of attack against Obama, either. The Times notes six different narratives, a tactic-to-tactic mess that gave the electorate the impression that the McCain campaign was uneven, and allowed reporters to write a continuing series of a meta-stories about the campaign itself, and not about the substance of the election. Strange, for McCain had many experienced people in his campaign, and they should have known that once you lose the media narrative contest, you lose, period. This is exactly what happened to Kerry, and Gore.

2. The WaPo Tax Chart

On June 9, 2008, the Washington Post published a very simple chart, showing in clear, color-coded bars, the impact of the McCain tax plan versus the Obama plan:

The chart made it clear and obvious not only that Obama’s plan would lower taxes for most people, but also that McCain was misrepresenting Obama’s position on taxes. While I have no emperical evidence exactly how many people saw this chart and exactly how it made a difference, for what it’s worth, it was widely discussed in the liberal blogosphere (eg, see here), and it’s my guess that it’s one reason why McCain’s attacks on taxes did not “stick.” When, later in the campaign, the “spread the wealth” story about Joe the Plumber came up, it’s likely people already were straight in the differences in the tax plan, and, again, may be at least part of the reason the “socialist” characterization just never got any traction with anyone other than the Republican base.

3. Hillary Clinton and the Extended Primary Process

Sure, it was grueling. But early on in the process, it was clear the Democrats were adding millions to their side of the aisle. The primary was close, and rough, and the reason is went on so long was that Hillary Clinton just did not give up. For Obama supporters, that was a frustrating thing, but, in the end, the reason Obama did so well in the general election is that Hillary Clinton toughened him up. By raising issues like Bill Ayers early on, Clinton allowed Obama to formulate a response, and also took away the force of this charge when John McCain tried it later — many reporters and pundits noted how this tactic was already tried by Clinton, and Obama still won. The primary was long and even mean at times, but it allowed Obama, who was a relative newcomer to Washington, DC (a strength of his as much as a weakness), to prove that he had what it takes to fight, and proved he could win in the general election. And Hillary Clinton, to her great credit, ended her campaign with dignity and grace, and, in many ways, came out a stronger force in American politics despite her loss in the primary.

4. Howard Dean and the 50 State Strategy

This was the key. Barack Obama’s victory was set in motion years before he ever announced his candidacy, and the most important factor in his winning was Howard Dean, who, in 2004, after dropping out of the Presidential primary, went on to become Chair of the Democratic National Committee. His single most important initiative there was implementing the “50 State Strategy“:

Dean’s strategy uses a post-Watergate model taken from the Republicans of the mid-seventies. Working at the local, state and national level, the GOP built the party from the ground up. Dean’s plan is to seed the local level with young and committed candidates, building them into state candidates in future races. Dean has traveled extensively throughout the country with the plan, including places like Utah, Mississippi, and Texas, states in which Republicans have dominated the political landscape. Many establishment Democrats were at least initially dubious about the strategy’s worth–political consultant and former Bill Clinton advisor Paul Begala suggested that Dean’s plan was “just hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose.

Begala, like many in the Democratic establishment, were wrong, and Dean’s idea prevailed. The 50 state strategy was also an idea championed within the netroots, and pushed hard by, for example, Marcos Moulitsas, from Daily Kos. In the days before the election, “kos” posted this, a vindication of sorts:

I keep saying it since I doubt people believe me — when we were agitating for the 50-state strategy in 2003, 2004, and 2005, it was hugely controversial. Crashing the Gate may seem like a fairly conventional book today, but when Jerome and I wrote it in 2006, it was mocked as crazy talk. Funny how two years and a little success completely changed everything.

From the results of the election, it’s clear this strategy has paid off. Obama bought into this early on, and setup campaign offices in “red states” like Virginia and Indiana, and he won them both, as well as others won by Bush. The red-versus-blue map has been completely transformed.

All four of the above reasons were, I think, instrumental in Obama’s win. Sure, technology was also important. And Obama himself was and is a transformational figure in American politics, one with appeal on all sides. And of course, without the money Obama was able to raise, he would never have been able to compete the way he did.

But the above four factors were, to me, the most significant. The first two have everything to do with the importance of narratives in a political campaign, and whether or not they take hold in the imagination of the public. The second two are the nuts and bolts of politics, the actual on-the-ground organizing and planning that it takes to win, and the strategy and foresight to be one step ahead, like Howard Dean was back in 2004.


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  1. […] About ← Why Obama Won […]

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