How Obama Won the Democratic Party Nomination in 2008 Term Paper

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2008 Primaries

All the pre-primary polling in 2006 and 2007 showed that the nomination was Hillary Clinton's to lose, since she usually led Barack Obama by over twenty points, and even by 51% to 21% in one 2007 Gallup poll. At that time, 82% of Democrats viewed her favorably compared to 70% for Obama, and women, blacks, Southern whites, the working class and low-income voters all favored her overwhelmingly (Newport et al., 223). Somehow she managed to lose that lead and supporters, opponents and pundits have all speculated about what went wrong with her campaign. Essentially, in a climate of economic downturn, massive discontent and a generational reform wave that had not been seen in the U.S. since the 1960s, Obama managed to take away enough of the Democratic base to secure the nomination, especially about younger, more educated and minority voters. Obama turned out to be a far more charismatic and inspirational candidate for these voters, and although Clinton could claim more experience in foreign and domestic policy and greater ability to deal with problems like two wars and the worst recession since the 1930s, in the end she simply could not match Obama's rock star persona.

From 2004, though, Hillary Clinton was widely expected to be the Democratic nominee and the Obama surge, led by David Plouffe and David Axelrod, came as quite a shock to her campaign. Beyond firing her chief strategist after a string of primary and caucus defeats, the Clinton campaign also took a very ugly and unexpected turn by appealing openly and blatantly to white voters in racist terms, questioning whether Obama was born in the United States, attacking his patriotism, the pastor of his church in Chicago, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and even questioning whether he was born in Kenya. Naturally, right-wing pundits and politicians picked up these attacks and have used them continually against Obama from the 2008 election to the present. These not-so-thinly veiled racial attacks were not enough to save the Clinton nomination, however, or the McCain campaign in November.

Even in the run up polling prior to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary in January 2008, Clinton still had a large lead over Obama and John Edwards, and the latter's campaign faded very quickly. Yet Obama won with 31% in Iowa, with 30% for Edwards and only 29% for Clinton, and even though Clinton won New Hampshire with 39% of the vote, Obama's close second place at 37% was unsettling to her campaign (Newport et al., 271-72). Even with her show of emotion in New Hampshire, apparently coming close to tears, many cynical pundits and journalists wondered if her feelings were deliberately staged, especially because she had so often come across as a very wooden and controlled candidate compared to Obama (Balz and Johnson, 137). Bill Clinton accused Obama of pandering to Midwest voters by promising to consider the repeal of NAFTA, saying that "I thought he was irresponsible," while Hillary Clinton said of his great speeches that "change is just a word." In private, Obama walked back his remarks of free trade, telling worried Canadians that his criticism was merely campaign rhetoric and not to be taken seriously (Balz and Johnson 84-85). At the time, his supporters overlooked this rhetorical sidestep and sleight-of-hand, although it actually turned out to be an important indication of what his governing style would be once he was elected, and in the end it disappointed many of his enthusiastic supporters.

Winning the Iowa caucuses and coming in a respectable second in New Hampshire were major breakthroughs for Obama, and began to earn him endorsements from national labor unions and political figures (Appelman, 101). Even at this stage, the Clinton campaign began to show signs of fraying and desperation, as indicated by Bill Clinton's deprecatory remarks in South Carolina about black voters supporting Obama just because of his color (Balz and Johnson, 155-56). He played a far less open role in the campaign from that point forward, but the damage had been done with blacks, and it turned out to be a pivotal moment in the primaries. From this point forward, the momentum seemed to be with Obama while Clinton was on the defensive, and political cartoonists began showing Clinton as grim, glum and sour (Appelman, 100, 133). On Super Tuesday (February 5th), Obama carried thirteen of twenty-four states and won a slight advantage in the delegate count, and on February 12th he won the Potomac primary, carrying Maryland, Virginia and Washington, DC, followed by victories in Wisconsin and Hawaii a week later (Newport et al., 293). Clinton aired her most effective campaign on February 28th, the "3:00 AM phone call" which asked voters whether they preferred her to be in the White House when a crisis occurred overseas or the inexperienced Obama.

This was the most telling argument the Clinton campaign made against Obama during the primaries, but it was not enough to stop his momentum or secure her the nomination. Clinton won the older, industrial states of Ohio and Rhode Island on March 4th, while Obama won the green-progressive state of Vermont. Texas turned out to be a split decision with Clinton winning the primaries and Obama the caucuses, with a surprising show of strength among Hispanic voters that proved crucial to Obama in the West right through to the general election. In panic mode, the Clinton campaign became even more blatant in playing the race card, with Geraldine Ferraro stating on March 7th that "if Obama was a white man he would not be in this position," and then began launching attacks of Rev. Jeremiah Wright a week later, such as his sermons damning America for its racism and imperialism (Newport et al., 320). All of this was a blatant attempt to appeal to white working class and Catholic voters in the Midwest and Northeast, which helped Clinton to win the Pennsylvania primary on April 22nd.

On May 6th Obama carried North Carolina and came close to winning the old, blue-collar state of Indiana, and by this point it seemed clear enough that Clinton would lose the nomination. She had no intention of giving up, however, and the next day stated that she had more chance of winning the general election because she would have the support of all the "hard-working Americans, white Americans." Clinton won the West Virginia primary on May 13th and Kentucky a week later, while Obama defeated her in Oregon -- another greenish-progressive-high technology state where he always did well. Probably the absolute low point of the primary season came on May 23, 2008, when a reporter asked Clinton why she was still staying in the race and she replied that Bill Clinton had not secured the 1992 nomination until June, while Robert Kennedy had also been assassinated that month (Newport et al., 360). This implication that Obama might suffer the same fate drew a very sharp rebuke from his campaign, given that there was considerable speculation at the time that white racists might very well kill him to prevent a black man from being elected president. After all the primaries and caucuses were finished on June 3rd it was all over, and Obama had a majority of delegates. Clinton conceded on June 7th (Newport et al., 380).

Throughout the primary season certain divisions within the Democratic Party were crystal clear and consistent from January to June. White women stayed loyal to Clinton while blacks supported Obama, while downscale and working class whites in general favored Clinton while upper income and educated whites were in the Obama camp, especially those with college and graduate degrees. Gun owners and seniors voted for Clinton in the primaries with younger voters far more strongly attracted to Obama. Clinton won the rural areas, Obama the cities and the suburbs were divided, although Obama tended to edge out Clinton there as well. States with large black populations were Obama country, as were areas with high technology, 21st Century jobs, while Clinton did much better in blue-collar, manufacturing regions and unskilled white workers, especially in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia (McMahon et al., 8-9).

White feminists like Gloria Steinem speculated that Hillary Clinton had lost the election because sexism was not taken as seriously as racism in America, or because blacks had always made gains faster than women, and that the media had portrayed her as simply not as likeable and inspiring as Obama. As for her own tactics, many black and Hispanic feminists thought she had been "patriarchal and racist" which "alienated her from voters who might otherwise have come to her defense" (Logan, 52). Hillary Clinton's surrogates were the first to raise the Rev. Wright issue and to raise questions about Obama's birth certificate and Kenyan citizenship, which Republicans have used against him over and over again for the past three years in overtly racist attacks. Meanwhile, Obama ran as a post-racial, consensus-building candidate who was not angry, protesting or claiming victimhood like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.…

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