In their new book, NBC News political director Chuck Todd and NBC News elections director Sheldon Gawiser provide a state-by-state guide to how Obama achieved his victory, as well as a toolbox for understanding the political implications of the 2008 presidential election. An excerpt.
Once in a generation?
So how does one sum up the 2008 presidential campaign in just 12,000 words? Who is arrogant enough to think he or she can capture precisely the historical nature of this campaign and election, at a time when the nation seems vulnerable on so many fronts?
It’s possible a historian 50 years from now might be able truly to understand what happened and why the country was ready to break through the color barrier, particularly if said historian looks at the 2008 election through the prism of post–Cold War America.
Since 1992, the country has witnessed nearly two decades of political tumult of a kind it has experienced only once or twice a century. Right now, the country is so enamored with the fact that we’ve broken the political color barrier of the American presidency that we haven’t stepped back and appreciated just what a wild political ride our country has been on.
Since the Cold War ended and America lost its most significant enemy, the Soviet Union, the country has been looking for its political center. Consider the upheaval we’ve experienced as a nation since 1992. First, we had a three-way presidential election in which the third-party candidate was the front-runner for a good part of the campaign. Then, in 1994, we saw the House of Representatives switch control for the first time in 40 years. Next, in 1996, the winning presidential candidate failed to secure 50% of the vote for the second straight election, something that hadn’t happened before in two straight presidential elections in 80 years. Then, in 1998, the nation watched as a tabloid presidential soap opera became a Constitutional crisis, and Congress impeached a president for only the second time in this nation’s history. In 2000, the nation’s civics lesson on the Constitution continued, thanks to the first presidential election in over 100 years in which the winner of the Electoral College failed to win the popular vote, followed by the Supreme Court ruling, which eventually ended the protracted vote count controversy in Florida. In 2001, this nation was the victim of the worst terrorist attack in our history. Then, in 2004, a president won reelection by the smallest margin of any successfully reelected president in modern times. Finally, in 2006, control of Congress flipped after what, historically, was a fairly short stint for the Republicans. All of which brings us to 2008 and what for many Americans is the campaign commonly referred to as “the election of our lifetimes.”
Is this the election that ends a 20-year period of political chaos? The serious problems this country is facing may be the reason that 2008 puts the exclamation point on the country’s post–Cold War search for its political center.
Nine years in the making
The 2008 election got started early, before the first candidate, Tom Vilsack, officially announced in November 2006. The campaign began in 1999, when word first leaked that then first lady Hillary Clinton was seriously contemplating a run for U.S. senator from New York. Her election in 2000 set off the anticipation for what would be a historic first: the potential election of this country’s first woman president.
There was some scuttlebutt that Clinton would run for president in 2004, but ultimately she decided to keep her eye on the 2008 ball. That was when she’d be into her second term as senator and when the field would be cleared of an incumbent president. This country rarely fires presidents after one term. It’s happened just three times in the last 100 years.
The long march of the Hillary Clinton candidacy shaped much of the presidential fields for both parties. The Republicans who announced in 2008 all made their cases within the framework of challenging Hillary. In fact, it was Hillary’s presence on the Democratic side that gave Rudy Giuliani the opportunity to be taken seriously by Republicans as a 2008 presidential candidate. As for the Democrats, consider that many an analyst and media critic like to talk about how wrong so-called conventional wisdom was during the 2008 campaign. But much of it was right. One early piece of such wisdom was that the Democratic primary campaign would be a primary within the primary between all the Democrats not named Clinton to establish an alternative to Hillary.
This sub-Democratic primary, which started in earnest after the 2004 presidential election, looked as if it was going to be a campaign between a lot of white guys and Washington insiders looking for their last chance at the brass ring. Familiar faces like Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, and Bill Richardson must have thought to themselves, "If I could only get into a one-on-one with Hillary, I could beat her." Some new names were also seriously considering a run, like Virginia Governor Mark Warner and Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack. None of these potential candidates scared the Clinton camp, because they all were just conventional enough that Hillary’s ability to put together a base of women and African-Americans would be sufficient to achieve the Democratic nomination.
But there was one potential candidate whose name was being talked about by activists and the blogosphere who did have the Clinton crowd nervous: the freshman senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. The factor that kept the Clintons confident about their 2008 chances was the notion that there was just no way, despite his popularity with the Democratic activist base, that a guy who, until 2004, was in the Illinois state senate would somehow have the audacity to run for president so soon. The Clintons were very familiar with the strategy of figuring out the timing of when best to run. They knew 1988 was too soon for Bill, and they took the advice of many and waited until 1992, and they knew that 2004 was too soon for Hillary, and she took the advice of many and waited. Surely, the Clintons must have thought, Obama would follow the same advice.
The most remarkable primary campaign no one seemed to care about
While the Democrats were positioning themselves, the Republicans were in the midst of their own turmoil. This turned out to be a hard-fought primary that few cared about, as the country became obsessed with the most amazing Democratic primary campaign in a generation.
The Republican nomination was seen as completely wide open, mostly because the outgoing incumbent Republican president had not identified an heir apparent. President Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, had lost his presidential ambition long ago, and the only other potential Bush heir, his brother Jeb, decided that trying to immediately succeed his brother was probably not the wisest move.
But Republicans love order, or so their presidential nomination contests in the past have indicated. What does order mean for the GOP? If there’s no incumbent president or sitting vice president in the field, then the runner-up from the last contested nominating fight would be deemed the de facto front-runner. In this case it was John McCain since he was the runner-up to George W. Bush in the 2000 primary. Of course, McCain ended up with the nomination, but to this day, it’s a miracle that he was able to win it.
McCain initially portrayed himself as the inevitable nominee, creating a behemoth campaign organization, participating in endorsement buy-offs with his deep-pocketed competitor, Mitt Romney, and trying to enhance his image as a maverick while making nice with various conservatives, including the late Jerry Falwell and evangelist Pat Robertson.
Still, many activists were searching for an alternative to McCain. As a result, McCain struggled mightily to raise money in the first six months of his campaign. His fund-raising was further hampered when he became the highest profile Republican other than George W. Bush to push for comprehensive immigration reform. This legislation, cosponsored by conservative bogeyman Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, fired up the conservative talk radio base and McCain got scorched, drying up his fund-raising and putting him on the brink of having to end his campaign before Labor Day 2007.
But instead of dropping out, McCain essentially filed for Chapter 11 and did a massive reorganization. He drastically reduced his staff to a small band of campaign operatives determined to win the nomination one early primary state at a time. There was one great illustrative moment in the summer of 2007 of this new campaign, postreorganization, when McCain carried his own bags in an airport while traveling alone to a campaign event in New Hampshire.
During McCain’s apparent demise, there was a massive effort by the other Republicans to fill the vacuum. Mitt Romney was vying to be the conservative alternative to McCain early on, which meant he had to tack back on a number of positions he took when he ran for office in liberal Massachusetts. But even with McCain apparently out of the mix, Romney decided not to fill the center but still aimed to become the front-runner by appeasing conservatives. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was also in the race but was running on a different plane. He was certainly taken seriously by his opponents because he raised decent money, and his name identification as the mayor of New York on 9/11 meant he led in just about every national poll during the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. But there was always something about his candidacy that seemed like a house of cards. It really wasn’t a matter of if his candidacy would collapse, but when. The collapse began in December 2007, when the New York tabloid press just unloaded, well, everything from Giuliani’s past, from his secretive courtship of his third wife to his relationship with his now disgraced former police chief, Bernard Kerik. Giuliani’s personal problems turned out to be as debilitating as many analysts had predicted. Adding to this politics of self-destruction, Giuliani’s team had crafted a nonsensical campaign strategy that banked on Giuliani skipping Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Michigan, while focusing solely on the Florida primary to launch his candidacy. Giuliani joins a long list of presidential wannabes who have attempted and failed to get the nomination by bypassing both Iowa and New Hampshire. While every campaign rule of presidential politics is bound to be broken, this one has yet to be, at least since 1976 when Jimmy Carter used a win in Iowa to catapult himself to the Democratic nomination.
There were two other major players in the Republican contest: on-again, off-again actor and former Senator Fred Thompson and former Baptist preacher and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.
Thompson’s rise ended on the day he actually announced his candidacy. The idea of a Thompson candidacy began to develop in the conservative blogosphere and Washington salons in the spring of 2007, and when McCain’s campaign nearly collapsed, the idea quickly gathered speed. Essentially, he was one of the best noncandidates in the history of presidential politics. But then he got in the race and his prospects began to deteriorate. The minute he announced, he became ordinary and quickly earned a reputation as being lazy and unenergetic. He just seemed to wing it, hoping the lack of interest in the rest of the GOP field would consolidate support for his candidacy.
If Thompson had a polar opposite when it came to hunger for the nomination, it was Huckabee. Never meeting a TV camera he didn’t like, Huckabee quickly became a media darling of the primary campaign. With each passing Republican debate, it was Huckabee who seemed to be creating immeasurable buzz. While he had little campaign cash, he had a devoted support network, comprised of many social conservatives, including home schooling advocates, who tirelessly put together a very impressive Iowa field organization.
As Thompson was fizzling and Giuliani was campaigning in his own world down in Florida, McCain was hunkering down in New Hampshire, trying to recapture the 2000 magic. The buzz for McCain was not nearly as intense in the fall of 2007 as it was in the fall of 1999, when he came from behind, nearly toppling George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential primaries. But there was something about McCain’s 2008 candidacy that seemed salvageable.
Excerpted from “How Barack Obama Won” by Chuck Todd and Sheldon Gawiser. Copyright © 2009 by by Chuck Todd and Sheldon Gawiser, Ph.D. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.