On-the-Ground Campaign Analysis

Obama’s Victory Told With 20/20 Hindsight

Posted February 2, 2009 at 3:58pm

Now that President Barack Obama is diving headfirst into his first 100 days in the Oval Office, there has been no shortage of books taking a look in the rearview mirror to the campaign season of 2008, books that seek to understand how the first African-American president propelled himself from a one-term Senator to the highest office in the country.

One of those is written by Chuck Todd, NBC’s political director and White House correspondent, and Sheldon Gawiser, NBC’s elections director.

“How Barack Obama Won: A State-By-State Guide to the Historic 2008 Presidential Election” takes a look at all the major political figures involved in the 2008 presidential campaign season and seeks to dissect what factors came into play for Obama to not only take the Democratic nomination from the party frontrunner, but to win the White House. The book provides a breakdown of votes from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

With 255 pages full of charts that show how the various groups cast their ballots and with chapters separating competitive states from the solid red and blue ones, the book provides a good deal of information on the Nov. 4 results without focusing much on the political drama.

The book begins with a dedication and brief comments about Tim Russert, NBC’s Washington bureau chief and moderator of “Meet the Press,” a go-to man for all things political who suddenly died during the middle of the campaign season.

Russert was the first to name Obama as the winner of the Democratic nomination for president after a long fight with then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).

“We now know who the Democratic nominee is going to be,” Russert said after Obama won the North Carolina primary and almost upset Clinton in Indiana in May 2008, essentially doing what no one else could do in killing off the Clinton machine, the authors observe.

But it took much more than that for Obama to gain his party’s nomination. From the outset, the two political reporters believed Obama gained an advantage over his competitors by making the case for himself as president on the steps of the Illinois state legislature.

Unlike Obama, Clinton and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the eventual Republican presidential nominee, announced their bids in unconventional ways: Clinton on the Internet and McCain on the “Tonight Show with Jay Leno” — but neither candidate ever followed with an official speech.

According to the political observers, Obama’s entrance into the world of presidential politics let him mount the “change” argument, particularly against the nominee who shared the political party of unpopular former President George W. Bush.

In the instances of Clinton and McCain, “Neither offered consistent ‘change from Bush’ arguments. And in a time when President Bush had approval ratings ranging from 25% to 30%, change mattered the most to voters over any other issue,” the authors write.

In an interview, Todd said he thought Obama’s speech really helped his candidacy because he took his message of change straight to the voters, which allowed him to build from that.

“It tells me he made his case. He put it down on a piece of paper. It’s like a mission statement in any walk of life. It allows people to go back and take a look at it,” Todd said.

But even though Obama and Congressional Democrats made electoral gains, it is still too early to know whether it’s a long-term reign, Todd said.

Todd estimated that any election trends might not be recognized until 2014, noting that when President Jimmy Carter lost to then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan, it was initially viewed as a rejection of the Democratic president, yet Republicans continued to make gains for more than two decades.

Any voting changes that move into the Democratic column will likely come from the growing Hispanic population, particularly in Western states such as Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

Todd indicated that even in states such as North Carolina and Indiana, the Hispanic population made the difference in contributing to an Obama win.

“Hispanics are growing everywhere. Their numbers are growing in like 19 states. If it wasn’t for Hispanics, Obama would have lost Indiana,” Todd said.

More importantly, it is a warning sign for Republicans, who received little support from nonwhite voters in an ever-increasing multiethnic population. “This is a huge hole that Republicans cannot allow themselves,” he said.

McCain’s voting bloc was 90 percent Caucasian, even as the percentage of white Americans voting dropped in some crucial states, including Ohio. Overall, McCain’s share of the Hispanic voting population was 31 percent, down 9 points from Bush’s 2004 showing.

As for Obama’s road to the White House, “He did well in all groups — women, African-American, the youth vote, white men. He did better everywhere. You can’t somehow point at one thing,” Todd said.