Analysis: Five things Obama did right | St. Louis Public Radio

Analysis: Five things Obama did right

May 15, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: A year later, you can almost see the egg on Terry Jones' face. About 12 months ago, the political scientist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis was among pundits who saw the political campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama as the equivalent of a colt signing up for the Kentucky Derby.

The smart money at the time was on a horse named Hillary; and Jones, like most other observers, expected Hillary Clinton to leave the starting gate in a rush, followed perhaps by an easy trot to victory for the nomination. After all, she had the money and big-name fans in her corner.

It wasn't just political scientists who were thrown for a loss. Even many African-Americans who might have been expected to bet on Obama early on were just as doubtful about the chances of the young upstart from Illinois winning a big prize.

Granted, Obama is inching toward the nomination in both in delegates and popularity. This primary season continues to expose him to dangers that don't allow him to take victory for granted.

He left the starting gate in Iowa with sure footing and shocked the rest of the pack by coming in first in a state with few black residents. After stumbling in New Hampshire, he later picked up another trophy in South Carolina, the first state to leave the Union during the Civil War. But he trailed badly in West Virginia. Getting the endorsement of certified good ol' boy John Edwards may help Obama win over working-class voters like those who shunned him in West Virginia.

But this is an election cycle in which a political endorsement can mean next to nothing. Think back to Massachusetts, where Obama was anointed by none other than Sen. Edward Kennedy - but he lost that state's primary to Clinton.

While the race is not over and anything could still happen between now and the Democratic Convention in Denver in August, America has witnessed something different through the Obama phenomenon during this seesaw campaign. Win or lose the nomination, Obama, it's fair to say, has done a number of things right. Here are five.

1. When it comes to political donations, think small

Obama didn't adopt the traditional model when it came to raising money. Clinton, his chief rival, went after big campaign donors, many of them writing checks for the maximum donation of $2,300. Obama, meanwhile, has relied heavily on a system that allowed ordinary people to finance his campaign. Perhaps more than any other candidate, Obama has exploited internet technology to reach these voters for small donations and volunteerism.

After each primary victory or setback, his campaign sends out emails to an estimated 800,000 backers who had signed up on his websites. The sales pitch is usually for donations $5 to $50 (the pitch now seems to be for $25 contributions) to help Obama win the next primary. His young supporters in particular point to that system as one thing they like about Obama: He hasn't relied heavily on big donors, and their influence, in financing his campaign.

So far, according to his campaign reports, Obama has raised at least $100 million online. This enormous fund-raising apparatus is one reason he emerged as a lot more than a token opponent. While Clinton has had to borrow money to keep her campaign afloat, Obama has encountered no such problem. 

2. Mine the caucus states for support

Clinton went after the big states and continues to point to her wins in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio as evidence she's the better Democratic candidate. In contrast, Obama's campaign saw an overlooked political gold mine in caucus states. His strategy was to use energetic young people to pack the time-consuming caucuses and line up pledged delegates. Focusing on caucus states turned out to be good strategy for Obama, who amassed his pledged delegate lead by wooing voters in those states, beginning with Iowa.

3. Talk about race without talking about race

Henry Brady, a political science professor at Berkeley, says Obama has an advantage on race that few African-Americans can match. The fact that Obama's African father didn't come to these shores in chains, Brady says, gave Obama an opportunity to talk about race in a different context without making whites feel guilty about slavery. This fact allowed Obama to speak of America as a place of hope, a land of promise, the country to which his own dad had come in search of freedom and opportunity.

Brady says that tone and message resonated with white voters, affected them deeply because it spoke of the experiences of many of their own parents who came here as immigrants seeking a better life.

A second defining moment in the campaign on matters of race, Brady says, was Obama's decision to break completely with his minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who had come under attack for his criticism of American domestic and foreign policies. While Obama's young white supporters didn't seem very upset by the Wright controversy and while the issue didn't seem to bother most of his black supporters at all, Obama was wise enough to sense the overall political damage caused by Wright's words and was able to get his campaign back on track by denouncing the minister's attacks and severing ties with the church.

4. Win Missouri, Wisconsin and South Carolina

These election victories counted for different reasons for Obama, says political scientist Dave Robertson of the University of Missouri at St. Louis. The win in Missouri undercut Clinton's argument that Obama couldn't corral swing states. Moreover, his win in Missouri showed that Obama had the capability of attracting suburban voters, even in places like St. Charles County. In Wisconsin, another swing state, Obama showed surprising strength in some rural areas and among a range of voters. True, Clinton picked up steam in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but based on Obama's performance in Missouri and Wisconsin, Clinton could no longer argue that Obama wouldn't be a strong contender in Midwest battleground states. Finally, after Clinton won the New Hampshire primary, Obama was able to point to his strong victory in South Carolina as proof that he could win both primaries and caucuses.

5. Develop a message in Tune with the times

Obama learned lessons from Democrats in the previous presidential campaign. In 2003, for example, the war in Iraq was a hot issue, but when that issue cooled, voters lost interest in then-Democratic candidate Howard Dean, who was still talking up the war.

Last fall, the war again was perceived as the top political issue, and Obama treated it that way. But by the beginning of this year, economic issues bypassed voter concern about the war.

Unlike Dean, Obama responded to shifting voter concerns and refocused his message on the economy. Granted, Clinton did, too, but Obama prevented her from completely dominating the issue and undercutting his ability to connect with voters who ordinarily might have been in her corner.

Not to be overlooked, or underestimated, is the good will that Obama and his "Yes We Can" campaign for change created. Obama realized from the beginning that voters were deeply disatisfied with the country's direction -- and wanted change. This theme sparked independents and especially young people to take an interest in politics, and they've landed primarily in his camp.

If Obama clinches the nomination, as he is expected to, it just may be because the five things Obama did right were the five things that Clinton did wrong.