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How Obama Won

Two leading political experts on the historic election — and how it could usher in “a brand-new nation”

President elect, Barack Obama

President elect, Barack Obama, speaks to supporters in Chicago, IL on November 4th, 2008.

Christina Jamison/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

Two days after the election of Barack Obama, we met at the Rolling Stone offices in New York with two of America’s most perceptive political observers. Peter D. Hart, known for his nonpartisan poll for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, has conducted public opinion research for 30 governors and 40 U.S. senators, from Hubert Humphrey to Ted Kennedy. David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School at Harvard, has served in the White House as a senior adviser to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton.

What was the single biggest key to Obama’s victory?
Peter D. Hart: The core he stimulated within the electorate — African-Americans, Latinos, young voters, first-time voters. He ran better than two-thirds in all of those groups, and 95 percent with African-Americans. He took what had been a confined electorate and changed it. In doing so, he put into play states that Democrats never thought they could win — Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Indiana and North Carolina, as well as Ohio and Florida.

David Gergen: The key, in my judgment, was that early on, Obama forged a strategy for victory, assembled a team around that strategy, and executed the best-organized and most brilliant campaign we’ve seen in American politics since John Kennedy in 1960. Essential to that strategy was the building of a new coalition. What we now sec is the emergence of a possible majority that could bring dominance to the Democratic Party for some years to come. We’ve had a long period of Republican dominance in the country. Republicans have won seven out of the last 10 presidential elections, and they built much of that success around what was often called the Reagan coalition. Now Obama has built what could be an Obama coalition. Peter’s absolutely right in identifying the millennial generation, the African-American community and Latinos as the driving forces behind this new coalition. It also includes women, suburban voters and others who have been traditional parts of the Democratic voting bloc. These, to me, are the new drivers.

Let’s talk about a couple of those constituencies. The youth vote — what role did it play? Was it big enough to really make a difference?
Hart: It made a huge difference. Remember: When we talk about the youth vote, we’re talking about all 50 states. It’s not like the evangelical vote or an ethnic group that is located in one particular area. Youth voters — coast to coast, border to border — turned to Obama in numbers that are just hard to fathom. They were drawn to him from day one, and it was a connection that was as psychological as it was issue-driven. This is somebody who spoke their language, who understood the times and who provided a direction that they wanted to see the country go in. Gore carried young voters by two points. Kerry carried them by about nine points. Obama carried them by 34 points.

Gergen: The emergence of this millennial generation as a force in American politics is going to be one of the biggest stories in the country over the next 20 years or so. We know from past history that when young people vote for one party a couple of times, they tend to vote for that party during their adult lifetimes in disproportionate numbers. We last saw this with Ronald Reagan, who attracted an unusual number of young people. But the rising generation of millennials is bigger than what has come before. They are even bigger than the baby-boom population, and they are much more progressive and diverse. Forty percent of millennials are minorities. They look past gender and race in ways that baby boomers do not. They embrace diversity, whereas older Americans tend to be wary or even scared of it. So this is an enormous potential asset for Democrats. We talked all along about whether Barack being black would drive away voters. Among the millennials, the fact that he was black attracted voters.

And Obama’s use of technology in the campaign was a key to mobilizing them.
Gergen: That’s right. If you look at history, every major realignment in our politics is a joining together of a new generation and emerging technologies. Obama has been a pioneer in joining the powers of the Internet with the principles of community organizing. Howard Dean used the Internet for meetups — Obama used it to create a movement. It was enormously important for getting the message out, raising money and mobilizing voters. Those are the three things — message, money and mobilization — that the Obama team saw and executed on brilliantly.

Hart: That’s the most important point in this election. This was an election of firsts. It’s the first modern election where technology enabled supporters to play a direct role in the campaign. It’s the first election where citizen media dominated the dialogue. It’s the first election where small money trumped the big money. It’s the first election where the global economy dominated what was going on. Most important, the first African-American president. It was a total transformation. The rules have been rewritten, and we’re never going to go back and play politics in the same way.

What happened to the “values voters” and the religious right?
Hart: It’s not that values voters disappeared — it’s that the economy trumped all other issues. People saw everything around them falling apart. They may be concerned about gay rights or abortion, but their most immediate concern was their pocketbook. You could see it in the upper Midwest: an Obama sweep from Ohio and Indiana through Iowa, three states Bush won in 2004, where economic survival trumped values. The same was true with Michigan, a toss-up state that went heavily for Obama.

Are we past the day where that kind of Rove-style campaign has lost its edge?
Hart: I would love to agree with you, but I think we will have to go through at least a couple more elections before that kind of campaign disappears. My guess is that an Obama presidency will move us in a direction of being more tolerant, more understanding. It’s like all of the polling we see — the more time people have to live with something, the more comfortable they get.

Gergen: It’s important to remember that this was an election between an old order that has dominated our politics for a long time versus a new, emerging order that’s struggling to take power. The new order has now won the election, but the old order has not vanished. Of the 21 red states that John McCain won, he carried all but six by double digits. All of those are states that Obama is going to have to address, because they could represent a potential coalition against him — especially if the Republicans can find a way to join those states to blue-collar voters in the more industrialized states. Blue-collar voters have joined up for this ride, but they may not stay on the bus — they could easily get off if Obama misplays his hand. There is a progressive movement that is being born here, but it could easily slip away. If Obama and the Democrats overreach on cultural issues early on, that could drive away some of the voters he got.

Hart: Obama is the first president since 1912 who did not win most of the 10 states along the Mississippi River, what we call the spine of America, from Minnesota all the way down to Louisiana. In fact, he lost six of those states. But those losses were offset by Obama’s wins in the Southwest — Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado — where he carried the Latino vote. The electoral map for both parties has changed, and the things you counted on as truths are no longer truths. The map has moved west, and you’d better be able to talk to Latino voters and Asian voters and African-Americans. That’s where the population is going to grow.

Gergen: Peter underscores an essential point: The other demographic group that is so important to this progressive coalition is the Latino vote. Latinos have now surpassed blacks in the population — they don’t vote in the same numbers, or at least they didn’t in this election, but they will over time. Of all the seven-year-olds in the country right now, 25 percent have Hispanic origins. That’s a huge wave that’s coming, and the Democrats have now made serious inroads into that population.

But that’s a population the Republicans still have a shot at.
Gergen: Yes, but we may look back and ask ourselves whether just as the civil rights era brought blacks into the Democratic coalition on a near-permanent basis, the fight over immigration has brought Latinos in for the long term. If you could put the Latino vote together on a regular basis the way the Democrats did this time — they got 67 percent of the Latino vote.

Hart: It’s a rising tide.

Gergen: Right, a rising tide that’s going to substantially change the political landscape and could lead to a new progressive era. Latino voters are values voters, with a lot of conservative Catholics who could be open to the Republicans. To bring them into his coalition, Obama is going to have to govern in a way that embraces Latino hopes and improves their economic outcomes.

Is there anything McCain could have done to win?
Gergen: The odds were always heavily against him. When one party holds the White House for eight years, the other party almost automatically wins the next election. We’ve had six such elections since World War II, and the out party has won five. But there was a moment around the Republican convention when Obama looked vulnerable, and McCain surged ahead with the Palin announcement. It looked like he might pull off an upset.

What effect do you think Palin had on the outcome?
Gergen: For me, a woman out in Ohio captured the Palin effect the best out of anyone in the election season. She said, “Sarah Palin was a sugar high.” Momentarily, there was great excitement about her, but then it wore off and she became a drag on the ticket.

It also spoke to the way McCain mismanaged his campaign, compared to the way Obama appeared in command throughout the race.
Gergen: I think one of the best decisions Obama made was refusing public financing. There was a cynicism attached to that, but there was also a muscularity that said, “If he’s in office, he’s not going to be just an innocent — he’s not going to be this idealist who can be pushed around.”

That was his Sister Souljah moment.
Gergen: Yeah, it was, and it worked. Good for him.

What would it take for Democrats to turn this victory into a lasting majority?
Gergen: It depends on whether they can govern — and that’s a big if. We have seen too many Democrats come in with great hopes and collapse soon after getting there. One big drama has concluded successfully for Obama, but now a new drama has started. You can imagine a doomsday scenario six months into his presidency: The economy in much worse shape than it is now, things in Iraq and Afghanistan falling apart, Iran threatening to get a nuclear weapon, people’s incomes and sense of hope vanished. The long-term prospects for Democrats depend heavily on whether Obama is able to have a good start.

Hart: There’s a difference between winning an election where the wind was at your back and putting together a permanent coalition that withstands when the wind’s at your face. For the Democrats, it really depends on the success of an Obama presidency. Democrats have a tremendous advantage — a candidate who understands the electorate — but it doesn’t mean that the party has bonded with this electorate yet.

Gergen: The election was more a repudiation of the Republicans than it was an embrace of liberal ideology. Don’t underestimate the power of cycles in American politics. I’m old enough to remember in the mid-Sixties when everyone thought the Republicans, after the Goldwater defeat, were finished, conservative ideas were bankrupt, the left would rule forever. Over time, the conservatives came out of the wilderness, and they’re not going to go away now. They’re pessimistic, they’re dejected, but don’t assume that means they’ll be on their tail 15 years from now. Obama put it extremely well the night of his victory when he said, “This is not change — this is a chance for change.” He under’ stands that this is an opportunity, it’s not change itself.

What should the first 100 days of Obama’s administration look like?
Gergen: He has to make it clear that he does not want to be judged by a 100-day standard, that change is not going to come that quickly. When he gets in, he’s got to make some fundamental decisions. Does he start in a cautious way, assert that the deficits are so large that he can’t fulfill his promises right away and try to rebuild the fiscal situation of the country? Or does he say, “Dick Cheney was right, deficits don’t matter. We need a massive national crusade to tackle our problems.” He’s going to be pushed both ways by Democrats in Congress.

Second, he’s got to ask the question “Do I intend to govern from the center, or from the left?” Americans are moderate. If he attempts to govern from the left, if he overreaches, he’ll pay a price for that. We saw that with Clinton, going too far left too quickly, and we saw that with Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush, who overreached to the right. Obama thinks he can move a center-right nation to become a center-left nation. That’s deep in his bones, the belief that we are at a moment that could be a new progressive era, and he could be the leader in establishing it. That means a set of progressive policies that try to end the iniquities and the injustices that have been visited not just upon poor people but the middle class in the last few years, to end this upward redistribution of wealth we’ve been seeing.

Hart: I’d tell him three things. First, spend your capital early and wisely, rather than trying to hoard it and say it may be there later. Second, this is not about fighting the system — it’s about making things work. People arc saying, “I want government to be more active in protecting me when tainted medicines and food are coming in from China, when my home is being foreclosed, all the things where I need help.” Third, the greatest capital you can gain is the human side of the presidency. The human side of Barack Obama was too hidden in his campaign. You need the dog, the basketball, family picnics — as was true with Kennedy and Reagan, it enhances the power of the president and moves beyond ideological and partisan divides.

Gergen: One of the keys to success for the campaign that we talked about was his capacity to mobilize this army of young people, especially through the Internet. He now has the potential to do something no other Democrat has done since Franklin Roosevelt: Build a grassroots movement that will support him in his presidency. Using the Internet, he can bring pressure on Congress in ways no other Democrat has done in decades, and it will be an enormous weapon for him in governing. He’s been very smart in the early days of the transition to send text messaging out to the millions of people they have addresses for, keeping them in touch. He’s clearly planning to bring them with him and make them part of governing. That could be a very big part of his new politics. Those people are going to be an enormous force for change, the likes of which we’ve never seen.

So what do Republicans do, given Obama’s popularity? Do they attach him right out of the gate, as they did with Clinton?
Gergen: No. Bill Clinton was denied a honeymoon, and so was George W. Bush. By contrast, my expectation is Barack Obama will have a significant honeymoon. As the first African-American president, he will enjoy a widespread feeling of people wishing him well. I think you will pay a substantial price as a Republican if you start attacking him early on. You’re going to have to give him a chance.

So what do Republicans do in the long term to come back?
Gergen: First of all, there is going to be a lot of bloodletting within the party. They’re going to have to do a lot of soul-searching about how they’re going to avoid becoming a minority, mostly white party that is confined to a few regions of the country, the Southeast and the Plains states and some of the Mountain states. But they’re also thinking there’s a fair chance Obama is going to be a failed president, so they’re going to be lying in the weeds for him. They’ll bide their time, and he’ll make some stumbles along the way, and then they can go on the attack.

Hart: That’s right. The Republicans can misplay their hand by being seen as obstructionist on legislation that rebuilds the economy. They have to be seen as working toward that end. The more that they listen to the Limbaughs and the Hannitys of the world, the more they will be drifting into the minority party. If that becomes the “loyal opposition” voice in 2009, they are going to be preaching to a small choir.

So who do they need to listen to? Who’s the de facto leader for the Republicans right now?
Hart: Newt Gingrich is setting himself up to be the post-Bush, post-2008 leader. He’s going to have a lot of influence in Washington, and we’ll hear a lot from him.

Gergen: They also need to encourage their younger leaders to take a larger place on the national stage. Gov. Bobby Jindal in Louisiana represents a great hope for them — he’s got stardom written all over him. It was too early to bring him up this time, but they see Bobby Jindal as potentially their Barack Obama. They could recruit some veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, get them to run for office, put them in as governors, show some progress. You need to bring your farm team up. But the Republicans are moving in the opposite direction, away from the center. This year they won gay marriage bans in three states.

Gergen: Cultural politics have not disappeared. The momentum’s going the wrong way on that issue, but the pendulum will swing back. It’s the last barrier to fall, and it will fall. Our whole history is about becoming more and more inclusive. We have these great big fights about Catholics, blacks, and over time we become more inclusive. Gay Americans are going to be embraced as a vital part of society, and we’re going to forget our prejudices.

I want to go back to something Peter said earlier. This was a watershed election not just for our politics but for our culture. This election changed people’s concept of what country they’re living in. After the last election, there were a huge number of people who became alienated from their own country — it represented things that they couldn’t identify with. The fact that an African-American could be elected made them feel, “I’ve got my country back — this is a place that I want to live again.” It’s created a fresh sense of hope. When Lincoln emancipated the slaves, he said that this was not only about changing the lives of black Americans, it was about changing the lives of white Americans too. This election is about that as well. It really has changed our culture forever.

Hart: I say amen to that. It could be a brand-new nation. But it won’t be until all those older white men who voted for McCain join this coalition of hope and transformation.

Hart: My next-door neighbor is 102 years old. His first vote was for Al Smith in 1928. He saw a country reject a candidate because he was a Catholic. My neighbor’s most recent vote was for Barack Obama. If that doesn’t say how far this country has come, nothing does.


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