In a race where Clinton seemed to have every advantage, why has Barack Obama now won eight primaries and caucuses in a row? If you look at the rhythm of the campaign, this is the first point where most of America's voters have a chance to consider him as a candidate with a serious chance of victory, and to genuinely engage his message. Democrats passionately want a candidate they can believe in, but also one who can win--and reverse the Republican disasters. As the presumed nominee, Clinton did everything she could to play on this, proclaiming herself as tough, experienced, and capable of taking everything the Republicans could throw at her. She lined up massive insider support, including commitments from 154 superdelegates (versus 50 for Obama) before a single vote was cast.
But as Obama began winning, voters who'd been paying only peripheral attention have started taking him seriously. The more familiar they've become with him, the more they've liked his message and chances, while their reservations about Clinton have only grown. Now, she and her surrogates are in a position of trying to rationalize eight straight Obama wins, including his 29-point Virginia victory in a state where she was up by 24 points less than four months ago, and her-23 point loss in Maryland, which she also led by roughly the same margin.
These recent losses, claims Clinton, were due to states with caucuses, major African American populations, or large numbers of young liberal professionals. But not only did Obama rout Clinton in Virginia among younger voters, African Americans, and independents, he also won a majority of white voters, staked a 55-to-43 lead among white men, and led among voters in every income and education level. Maine is one of the whitest and poorest states in America, yet Obama won it convincingly despite election-eve reports that blue-collar women might hand it to Clinton. And if you compare caucus margins, Obama won Iowa by a modest nine points and narrowly lost in Nevada. Since then, he's now won Washington, Nebraska, Georgia, Colorado, Minnesota and Kansas by more than 35 points, and Idaho and Alaska by more than 50. In my state of Washington, Obama took every single county, including the highly conservative rural ones, and the blue- and white-collar suburbs and exurbs. These weren't just latte-drinking liberals. Participants in my caucus couldn't stop talking about relatives and friends who'd never voted Democratic in their life, but were inspired by Obama's message.
The pattern in every state has been the same: Clinton started out with a massive early lead based on her (and Bill's) huge name recognition, connections with Democratic insiders, and the early endorsements gained in significant part on the desire of key leaders to go with the inevitable winner. Then Obama started campaigning, people responded to his story and his message, and the gaps begin to narrow. As recently as mid-October, national polls had Obama 28 points behind, and he trailed by 20 points going into the Iowa caucuses. He's now won 22 of the 32 legitimate elections, not counting Michigan and Florida. And given that he's now far ahead in recent momentum, even or ahead in national polls, and ahead in elected delegates, Democratic voters who earlier dismissed him as a candidate are far more primed to take his message seriously.
Before Super Tuesday I remember thinking, "if Obama only had three more weeks." To establish his electoral viability, he had no choice but to focus overwhelmingly on Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, hitting town after town to convince people who'd barely heard of him that he should be America's next president. He had no choice about doing this--a Rudy Guiliani big-state strategy would have been disastrous, as it was even with Guiliani's far greater name recognition. But it meant that Obama had no chance to create more than the most fleeting presence in the 22 states that voted on February 5th.
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Although Obama and the other candidates did campaign earlier in some of those states, few voters were paying much attention until the caucuses and primaries began. And because of the massive compression of schedule, Obama didn't have time to do more than jet in and out of states that represented over half the total convention delegates. Think about the states that Clinton ended up winning that day. Following his initial Iowa victory, Obama had time for just three brief visits to California, one to New York State, one to Massachusetts, two to New Jersey, one each to Arizona and New Mexico, and none at all to Tennessee, Arkansas, or Oklahoma. Clinton faced the same time constraints, but began with infinitely more name recognition and institutional connections, and a superstar surrogate in Bill, so needed the boosts from her personal visits far less. By the time most Super Tuesday voters began to realize that Clinton was no longer inevitable, Obama barely had a chance to do more than briefly get their attention.
That doesn't even count the impact of early voting, where people made up their mind before they had the chance to be seriously exposed to Obama's ideas. As many as half the California ballots may have been cast well before Super Tuesday-before the Kennedy endorsement, Obama's major California campaign stops, or the massive Los Angeles Oprah rally. Most were cast before Obama's massive South Carolina victory, and the backlash against Bill Clinton's racially charged attempts to dismiss it. Early voting had a comparable likely impact in New Jersey, Arizona, New Mexico, and Tennessee, with Obama surging late, but with much of this momentum being moot for the significant numbers of people who'd already voted. In the words of Clinton campaign director, Ace Smith, "our whole campaign is based on reaching those voters....with millions and millions of ballots cast before election day. And we've been trying to identify those people for months." No doubt the Obama campaign tried to reach these voters too, but they had far less initial visibility to use as leverage. Obama still emerged from the day with a plurality of delegates, but would certainly have had even more if voters had just had more time to get to know him.
Even in constituencies where Obama is still making up ground, you see the same pattern. White voters backed him in Virginia, for the first time in a Southern state. Maine was supposed to go to Clinton because of blue-collar women, but Obama won by 18 points. He got 26% of the Latino vote in Nevada, and polls before Super Tuesday showed him getting just 19% of the national Latino vote. But he averaged 35% on Super Tuesday, even counting the early voting and other obstacles, and actually won Virginia's small Latino population. Clinton began with massive advantages among Latino voters, having locked up early endorsements from people like LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, and United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta. Their political networks helped immensely, but mostly the margin has been simple name recognition. Clinton supporter Huerta joked that when Latino voters were interviewed about Obama, "A lot of them would say, 'Señor como se llama?' They didn't know Obama's name." But as Obama stressed in one of the debates, Latino voters did vote for him in his Illinois races, and are beginning to in his presidential quest. In the words of Obama supporter Miren Uriarte, head of a Latino research center at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, "What we've seen is the longer people become familiar with Obama's thinking, the more prone they are to vote for him." So his challenge with Latinos really does rest significantly on their simply not knowing him-a situation he's now beginning to change.
All this creates a critical argument to stress, both to residents of states yet to vote and to the superdelegates who will hold the convention's balance of power. In addition to Obama's dramatically expanding Democratic participation among young voters, African Americans and independents, and polling ahead of Hillary when matched against McCain, it means that his baseline of support may actually be much greater than we've seen so far. Those of us who support Obama need to raise this not as an excuse for complacency--we'll need to keep doing everything we can to get him nominated in August and elected in November. But we can make clear that his potential electoral strengths may just be starting to come into play. It seems the more voters know him, the more they like him.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time. See www.paulloeb.org