How Obama Won
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.