November 25, 2008 — The 2008 presidential campaign led to the election of the nation's first black president and included two female candidates for the highest offices in the land. Why "the dam broke" on race and gender in presidential politics after 200 years of white male dominance was one of many questions posed by University of Virginia politics professor Larry Sabato on Friday at the U.Va. Center for Politics' 10th annual American Democracy Conference.
Exactly what attributes and conditions made Barack Obama successful was a source of much discussion among three panels of political consultants, journalists and elected officials who spoke to a crowd of 500 in Alumni Hall.
U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., said he had expected a tide of women and blacks to flood high offices in the years following Geraldine Ferraro's vice presidential candidacy in 1984 and L. Douglas Wilder's 1989 election as governor of Virginia, but that had not happened.
Instead, such breakthroughs only "happen when candidates with a particular talent set come along," said Davis, drawing agreement from several panelists.
Americans who are reluctant to vote for black candidates don't trust them to represent the whole community, or associate certain negative characteristics with black leaders, said Davis, who is black.
"If Obama governs from the center, and governs well, it will dissolve those prejudices, and that may be the biggest payoff of an Obama presidency," he said.
There was disagreement about how impressive Obama's margin of victory was.
Winning by 9 million votes (7 percent of all votes) and capturing 365 electoral votes "in the modern political environment, with a very polarized electorate, I think, is pretty impressive," said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University.
Political commentator Rhodes Cook noted that Obama won states in all regions of the country, including many not won by a Democrat in several decades. Additionally, Obama captured seven of the eight so-called "battleground states," rolling up the largest victory margins in Pennsylvania and Ohio since Lyndon Johnson's election in 1964. His margin of 3 million votes in California doubled the previous record, set by Ronald Reagan, Cook said.
Retiring U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a Republican from Northern Virginia, saw the magnitude of Obama's victory as less impressive. He listed a number of factors working against the Republicans: the most unpopular incumbent president — for a sustained period — in the history of opinion polls; an unpopular war; a four-to-one Democratic spending advantage; and an economic meltdown starting in mid-September that has seen the stock market lose roughly half its value.
"And McCain still got 46 percent of the vote," said Davis, former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "It actually should have been worse."
The pro-Democratic election fundamentals were confirmed by the Democratic gains of 26 to 29 seats in the House and seven to nine Senate seats, Abramowitz said.
Nevertheless, highly educated, high-income suburbanites flocked to Obama, and the Republicans lost the population-rich suburbs for the first time, Davis noted, which he said was a result of Republican emphasis on cultural issues like guns, gay marriage and abortion that appeal primarily to rural voters.
"It helps you in West Virginia; it hurts you in Fairfax," he said.
Several panelists agreed that McCain was the best possible Republican candidate among those who competed for the nomination. But the fundamental political environment meant "it was almost inconceivable that any Republican [presidential candidate] could have won with any type of campaign," Abramowitz said.
Speakers on all three panels outlined myriad reasons for Obama's historic victory, from campaign strategy to personal charisma, great oratory and technological innovation.
Even Republicans among the panelists praised Obama's campaign. "I've never seen a better campaign in style and substance," said Lowell Weicker, a former congressman, senator and governor of Connecticut, who was elected both as a Republican and as an independent.
"He ran the most disciplined campaign of nine presidential administrations I've observed," said Ed Rollins, former chair of the Republican National Committee.
"Barack Obama was an incredibly inspiring, optimistic, magnetic figure," said Rich Lowry, editor-in-chief for the National Review and a former student of Sabato's. "That's the X factor in politics, and it shouldn't be underestimated. Reagan used to have it. Obama has it now."
Obama's charisma had its greatest impact with young voters, Lowry said. He earned the largest margin among voters under 30 in modern history, accounting for 86 percent of his 9-million-vote victory, Abramowitz noted. The result "may have graduated in a generation of Democratic voters," Lowry said.
Obama's rhetorical skills were another advantage. The rhetoric of American political campaigns tends to be reduced to the lowest common denominator, said former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, former chair of the Democratic National Committee. In this campaign the "bumper sticker phrases" filling the news included "you betcha" and "spread the wealth."
In contrast, Obama's August speech on race in America demonstrated that "we were dealing with a unique kind of leader who was ... willing to go beyond the 'you betchas' to the fundamental fears that Americans hold," Romer said.
Answering an audience question on technology in the campaign, Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist for presidential candidates Howard Dean and John Edwards, discussed how Obama's use of the Internet both built upon and far exceeded Dean's groundbreaking efforts in 2004. Playing off Democratic strategist James Carville's famous summary of the key to Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign strategy, "It's the economy, stupid," Trippi noted that for Obama the phrase would be, "It's the networks, stupid."
The social networking power of the Internet increased exponentially in the past four years, Trippi said. Facebook has more than 35 million users, and YouTube has 60 million viewers. Both barely existed in 2004. By contrast, Dean reached about 150,000 supporters with similar, but less mature, online tools.
"Obama just built the biggest network anyone's ever seen," Trippi noted. "Howard Dean led the Wright brothers. Barack Obama led Apollo 11."
There was little dispute that Obama leveraged technology far more effectively than the McCain campaign. "The Republicans need to get with the 1990s," quipped Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, noting that the Obama campaign reached tens of thousands through social networking Web sites Twitter and Facebook, and even built an iPhone application to enable supporters to keep up with campaign news, while the McCain campaign did not even utilize text messages to supporters.
Obama's campaign sent millions of text messages. Some asked recipients to provide their zip codes, allowing the campaign to assemble a base of volunteers by geographic regions, and to establish "the biggest voter database ever," said U.Va. alumnus Wyatt Andrews, a CBS News national correspondent and panel moderator.
As a result, Obama raised more than $500 million in small contributions averaging $80, tapping far more contributors than any campaign in history, Abramowitz said.
Panelists from both sides of the aisle had advice for Republicans to improve their lot in future elections.
The perception among Republican voters of Bush's electability in 2000 led many to support him over others, including McCain, but Bush's leadership in office has been very corrosive to the Republican Party, Conway said, pointing to the loss of more than 50 Republican seats in the House of Representatives in the past two elections.
In the future, she suggested, Republican voters should worry less about "Who can win?" and more about "Who can lead?"
"Dynamism and innovation are winning American messages no matter what party advances them," Artur Davis said, noting that both Reagan and Obama were able to present their views in those terms.
Republicans should look to their governors for renewed leadership, he added. "The path to the Republicans coming back is when they discover a candidate and way of talking about conservatism that makes it sound innovative and reform-oriented ... rather than a defense of the status quo."