Intense and gripping, the 2008 election was also historic. The son of a Kenyan immigrant and an American mother has risen to the presidency of history’s most powerful nation. Who was not moved by the sight of Jesse Jackson standing silently among strangers with tears streaming down his face as he thought of a long journey towards equality and acceptance? So how did Barack Obama win?
Some of it was fortune: He was a fresh, gifted, charismatic leader who emerged at just the moment that people yearned for something entirely new.
Some of it was circumstance: The October Surprise arrived a month early and framed the election in the best possible way for Mr. Obama (and the worst possible way for John McCain).
Some of it was thoughtful positioning: His themes of bipartisanship and a readiness to tackle the country’s pressing challenges were enormously attractive, especially when delivered with hope and optimism.
And some of it was planning and execution: The Obama campaign, led by the two Davids — Plouffe, the manager, and Axelrod, the strategist — carefully built a powerful army of persuasion aimed at accomplishing two tasks.
A candidate can improve his party’s performance by getting additional people out to vote and persuading people inclined to support the other party to cross over. The first yields an additional vote; the second is worth two, the one a candidate gets and the one he takes away from his opponent.
So the two Davids registered millions of voters in states the Obama campaign picked as battlegrounds, especially where there were many heretofore-disinterested African Americans and younger Democrats. Messrs. Plouffe and Axelrod understood that over the last 28 years only 11 of 20 eligible Americans on average cast a presidential ballot. They focused on registering and motivating the other nine who don’t usually vote. This decision, perhaps more than any other, allowed Mr. Obama to win such previously red states as Virginia, Indiana, Colorado and Nevada. It forced Mr. McCain to spend most of the fall on defense, unable to take once-reliably Republican states for granted.
Second, Messrs. Plouffe and Axelrod pried away from the GOP ranks small but decisive slices of the Republican presidential coalition. We can’t be precise, because for the third election in a row the exit polls were trash. The raw numbers forecast an 18-point Obama win, news organizations who underwrote the poll arbitrarily dialed it down to a 10-point Obama edge, and the actual margin was six.
But we do know President-elect Obama ran better among frequent churchgoers (perhaps getting 10 points more than John Kerry did), independents (perhaps five points more than Kerry and eight points more than Al Gore), Hispanics and white men. He even made special appeals to gun owners and sent his wife to cultivate military families. This allowed him to carry previously red states like Florida, New Mexico and Iowa. This combination helped Senator Obama run four points better nationally than John Kerry did in 2004 and 2.5 points better than Al Gore did in 2000. These small changes on the margin meant all the difference between winning and losing.
It is a tribute to his skills that Mr. Obama, the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate, won in a country that remains center-right. Most pre-election polls and the wiggly exits indicate America remains ideologically stable, with 34% of voters saying they are conservative — unchanged from 2004. Moderates went to 44% from 45% of the electorate, while liberals went to 22% from 21%. Mr. Obama understood this. He downplayed calls for retreat from Iraq, instead emphasizing toughness on Afghanistan, even threatening an ally, Pakistan, if it didn’t help more to exterminate al Qaeda. Mr. Obama campaigned on “a tax cut for 95% of Americans,” while attacking “government-run health care” as “extreme” and his opponent’s proposals as hidden tax increases.
What Mr. Obama and his team achieved was impressive. But in 75 days comes the hard part. We saw a glimpse of the challenge Tuesday night. The president-elect’s speech, while graceful and at times uplifting, was light when it comes to an agenda. That may have been appropriate, but it also continued a pattern. Many Americans were drawn to Mr. Obama because they saw in him what they wanted to see. He became a large vessel into which voters placed their hopes. This can lead to disappointment and regret. What of the woman who, in the closing days of the campaign, rejoiced that Mr. Obama would pay for her gas and take care of her mortgage, tasks that no president can shoulder?
The country voted for change Tuesday. But the precise direction of that change remains unclear. Mr. Obama’s victory was personal rather than philosophical. The soaring hopes and vague incantations of “change” that have characterized the last 21 months were the poetry phase; a prosaic phase is about to begin. This should be an interesting few years. Let every American hope for the success of the new president and the country we all love.
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