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Obama’s Historic Victory – Money, Message And Strategy
Challenges For The General Elections

Barack Obama created history emerging as the first African-American presidential
candidate to lead a major political party in the United States and has accumulated
the most liberal voting record in the history of American politics.

by Indira Rampersad
Guyana Journal, June 2008

Barack Obama created history on June 3rd emerging as the first African-American presidential candidate to lead a major political party in the United States. Obama’s victory came in the wake of the South Dakota and Montana primaries when he clinched the Democratic nomination with 2,144 delegates, surpassing the 2,118 required.

Even John McCain admitted that Obama has accumulated the most liberal voting record in the history of American politics. To what then can we attribute Obama’s unprecedented victory? The answer can be summarized in three words: money, message and strategy.

Firstly, Obama has managed a prodigious fundraising campaign. He emerges as the most successful fundraiser in 2008 pulling ahead of Hillary Clinton in the money race every month. He appeals easily to new donors, and this year he has been raising more than $1 million a day, largely thanks to small online donors. Obama’s campaign raised $31.3 million in April alone with 200,000 new donors, of which 94 percent gave less than $200.00. Overall, his campaign boasts of almost three million individual contributions with an average donation of $91.00. Obama also has some big financial backers such as Oprah Winfrey which would also explain the $266 million he has raised to date.

Secondly, Obama’s strategist team displayed meticulous organizing skills and orchestrated brilliant campaign strategies. The money raised was partly used to fund a secret campaign enterprise which operated on the 11th floor of a skyscraper on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. There, Obama’s bright, youthful supporters designed interactive websites, and older volunteers occupied an entire call center where they focused not only on making calls but also on receiving them from Democrats who expressed an eagerness to help.

Most significant is the team’s concentration on successfully wooing delegates and superdelegates. They understood well that the Democratic nominee would be selected on this formula and not on electibility or popular votes. Thus, Obama’s strategists deliberately set out to achieve the targeted number of delegates by dividing the USA into 435 congressional districts which was the basis for pledged-delegate allocations. They microscopically assessed each district under varying scenarios. They then zeroed in on quirks that Obama could exploit like the fact that in districts that awarded an even number of delegates, the take was generally split evenly, if the winning margin was kept reasonable.

Campaign Obama also recognized the significance of winning small states. Fully aware that Hillary’s traditional strengths lay in winning big states such as New York and California, they opted to send volunteers to the small states which indeed mattered in the primaries, if just for picking up delegates. Obama amassed 118 delegates to Hillary’s 57 across Idaho, Nebraska, Vermont, Maine, Mississippi, North Dakota, the District of Columbia, Hawaii and Alaska.

In places like Idaho, Alabama and Alaska, which had never seen a Democratic presidential primary campaign, Obama made his presence felt. Moreover, in a district known as the Artic Circle comprising Kansas, Idaho, Utah and Alaska, Obama’s strategists worked virtually unchallenged by Clinton. The internet was widely used to reach voters located in these remote areas.

But it is Obama’s message, superbly delivered in tone and content which invariably conveyed care, concern and charisma and his theme of change which won the hearts of the millions of Americans who supported him. Obama’s speeches targeted an electorate vehemently opposed to the Iraq war and deeply concerned about the state of the American economy. Moreover, the theme of change was directed against both the Clintonite and Bush establishments, a return to which many Americans dread. The “new politics” rhetoric replete with a health care and energy plan, veering away from traditional policies benefiting the “healthy” and the “wealthy”, held tremendous appeal to reformist and issue-oriented Americans.

Moreover, the polarizing character of Hillary herself and her Bill Clinton baggage played right into Obama’s hands. For many, she is part of the status quo, another representative of the elite white establishment, who has enough personal assets to fund her own campaign and who really does not care about the underprivileged.

Thus, the fresh, young, African-American, anti-establishment Obama quickly became the darling of the American media, gaining widespread support from African-American, young and change-minded voters alike.
But Obama’s historic victory as the democratic nominee should not be interpreted as an automatic win in the November elections. Indeed, the Democratic National Congress should be quite concerned because Hillary won the popular vote with almost 18 million mostly white, blue-collar, female and elderly voters in several states. The delegates formula worked well for Obama in the primaries but the November showdown is based on number of states won, not on delegates. Electibility, popular votes and swing states now become critical to the electoral process in the presidential elections. Obama needs to win the swing states like Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia, which Hillary won by at least two to one.

Thus, Obama’s biggest challenge is wooing Hillary’s 18 million mostly white supporters. These blue collar voters constitute the base of the Democratic party and if they opt for McCain or choose not to vote, a Democratic president could be a dream in the distant horizon. The Democratic party now needs to appease Hillary’s female and blue-collar supporters who are already protesting Obama’s nomination.

Another major challenge for Obama is courting the Latino vote. In the Democratic primaries, the Latinos overwhelmingly supported Hillary. This is significant if only because Hispanics constitute 10 percent or thirty million of the 130 million voters in 2008. There are some 1,000 delegates in California, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona and in each of these states, the Latino population is in double digits. The results of the June 1st primaries in Puerto Rico where Hillary won 68 percent of the votes is a good indication of the Latino voting preference.

The Latino tendency toward Hillary is partly a result of their traditional ties with the Democratic party and Bill Clinton’s presidency. But there may be other dynamics at play. Obama’s more overt liberal ideology flies againt the Latino conservative stance on issues like gay rights and abortion. Moreover, the race factor cannot be ignored. The tensions between African-Americans and Latinos and the negative perceptions which these generate have marred relations between these groups for a long time and still resonate throughout the United States. There is a strong reluctance among many Latinos to vote for an African-American candidate and several could opt for McCain. This could be devastating for Obama particulary because the Latino vote is growing and could be a much more significant force should they turn out in droves in the November elections.

The Cuban American electorate is also critical particularly in the marginal constituency of Florida. Traditionally, they have supported the Republican party. Recently, Obama headed down to South Florida to explain his position on the embargo. Though he was singing a different tune last year about dialogue with Fide Castro, none of the three candidates are in favor of removing the embargo. However, Obama is the only candidate inclined toward removing restrictions on remittances and family travel to Cuba. But the 1.3 million Cuban-Americans are sharply divided along ideological lines. Obama’s refusal to remove the embargo would hardly gain him support amongst the moderate majority in South Florida who do not toe the anti-Castro policy of the Cuban American National Foundation which has endorsed Obama’s candidacy.

For Obama to become the 44th President of the United States, the Democratic party should do what it takes to get them. This includes considering Hillary as a vice presidential running mate on a dream ticket since this may be the only way to unite the racially divided party. Hillary is already campaigning for the position.

But this comes with its own problems. A vicious catfight between Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton may very well keep the Democratic Party divided. Michelle allegedly detests Hillary and seems highly influential on Barack. If she rejects Hillary as his choice for Vice President, the former First Lady could be out.

The big question is whether Barack Obama would allow his wife to veto a running-mate choice. Last month, Obama stoutly defended Michelle who has been heavily criticized for saying America is a “mean country” and that the White House campaign had made her “really proud” of her country for the first time.

Obama angrily turned to the Tennessee GOP bellowing “lay of my wife,” after the Republicans ran advertisements on Michelle’s alleged “unpatriotism.” Obama announced that “If they think that they’re going to try to make Michelle an issue in this campaign, they should be careful because that I find unacceptable.…”
John Edwards’ recent endorsement of Obama led to speculation that he could very well be Obama’s running mate and the perfect white antidote. But others contend that this is exactly where Bill Clinton would come in. Obama will need high-profile help to win suburban, rural and blue-collar white votes from Democrats as well as independents and change-minded Republicans.

Having Hillary as his Vice Presidential candidate could also be problematic for Obama especially because Bill comes along with the package. It may not be easy for Obama to juggle two Clintons in the White House, who may not always be loyal to him. The Clintons can provide the high-profile and high-wattage boost Obama needs, but they would not be so inclined without having a serious stake in the results. Besides, Hillary is not the type to be a passive, docile Vice President in the background and could very well try to overshadow Obama in the public arena.

Yet, Hillary has proven to be a formidable candidate which neither Obama nor the Democratic party could ignore. Moreover, the primaries reveal that both the race and gender factors are critical since many of Hillary’s supporters would have rejected Obama on these grounds. Exactly how many of Hillary’s backers will support Obama is still a mystery, so there are no guarantees that the majority will vote for him in November even with Hillary on a unity ticket.

But the Democratic party has little choice. Obama has already made several political gaffes, not the least of which are his ex-pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and his “bitter” comments in San Francisco which offended rural, white, blue-collar voters. The McCain camp will no doubt play these to the hilt on the campaign trail.

So even though there are no guarantees, the best option for the Democratic party is to field Hillary as Obama’s vice presidential running mate in a unity ticket. Otherwise, Americans could very well awake on November 5th to the frightening reality of another four years under President “McBush”.

(Previously published in and modified from the Trinidad Sunday Guardian News Feature of May/June, 2008.))

Dr. Indira Rampersad is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science/International Relations, Department of Behavioural Science, University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad & Tobago.

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