I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the Obama campaign is revolutionizing American politics, creating a dramatic shift in how campaigns are run, altering the relative strengths of the two parties, and changing the way candidates and citizens talk about issues.
Back after the Bush defeat of Al Gore in 2000, I was struck by something I read which said that if blacks and voters under 26 turned out in the numbers similar to other demographic categories, the election would have been a huge victory for Gore. Why can’t they do that? It’s not that they didn’t try. MTV tried to ‘rock the vote’ to get young people to the polls, and Jesse Jackson and others launched voter registration drives. But that wasn’t enough, it seemed those demographics could not be reached.
Right now the Clinton-Obama campaign is generating unprecedented voter turnout in primary elections. However, it is also doing two other things: 1) raising money at a pace never seen before in primary elections; and 2) focusing money and attention on building grass roots organizations all across the country. In other words, for the first time, the Democratic candidate for President has had the resources and the desire to build a network designed to increase voter turn out in a manner which could shift the balance of power between parties strongly towards the Democrats. Not only that, but he’s using new media and the internet in ways which, while explored by Howard Dean in 2004, for the first time really use the power of the information revolution to wage a political campaign.
Hillary Clinton didn’t see this coming, and still doesn’t think it’s real. She sees Obama as another Dukakis, an elitist, a black who will scare rural white Democrats, and someone who won’t be able to stand up to the GOP attack machine. However, he has taken punches from her and bounced back. Not due to rhetorical eloquence — on that front he’s over-rated. But due to organization, planning, and get out of the vote efforts that brought him close in Indiana, kept a strong margin of victory in North Carolina, and makes it virtually impossible for Hillary to turn things around in the coming weeks. Obama has been lucky that he has had a strong opponent who has lasted this long. The money keeps flowing in as he goes to unprecedented lengths to identify volunteers and build state and local organizational structures. In November he won’t rely on local machines and connections, the locals will often rely on him. That alone will assure that he will be a formidable opponent for John McCain.
Moreover, by relying on small donors rather than big corporations to finance the campaign, Obama is working to reconnect people with politics. The Clintons played by the old rules – court the big time donors (often people who give to the GOP as well), make personal connections with those in power, and then give the citizens bread and circuses. Hence after Bill left office they’ve made well over $100 million; they are part of the power elite. Playing by the old rules you focus on marketing and demographics in the old media way, and the weapons in a campaign are attacks and “comparisons;” the biggest danger you face is that you might be ‘swiftboated.’ Hillary claims she’s immune to that, and can put up a good fight. She can’t understand why Obama is defeating her.
The GOP as well seems to think they may have a weak opponent in Obama. He has a funny name. He’s black, and hidden racism is indeed probably the biggest obstacle he faces in this election. But if his organizational efforts yield even minor increases in turnout for Democrats, that could turn around a number of states, and in fact have real coattail effects down the ticket. Not only could this shift power to the Democrats, but it would also send a message that the old methods of attack politics, talk radio and ‘conservative populism’ don’t work. After all, McCain’s nomination suggests that the conservative populist rhetoric (Limbaugh and Hannity style: immigration, disbelief in global warming, militarism, and ridiculing/belittling ‘liberals’) doesn’t even sell within the GOP rank and file.
The Republicans will adjust in time, but American politics will never be the same. Moreover, this revolution doesn’t depend on Obama winning in the fall. This isn’t a revolution built around Obama’s personality or policies, it is a revolution in terms of the way politics operates in the United States. And, while Obama gets the credit, it’s people like Tom Daschle and David Axelrod who are the real architects. They and others in the Obama campaign have crafted perhaps the most brilliant strategy in recent history, shocking the Democratic establishment and taking an inexperienced new face and making him possibly the next President. A lot of people are already calling this race historic. I don’t think people realize just how historic the 2008 race will turn out to be.