The 2008 Democratic presidential primaries may well be remembered as a Waterloo for conventional wisdom.
The vaunted Clinton political machine was supposed to be unstoppable. Barack Obama was labeled "not black enough" to win over African-American voters. The primary calendar was so front-loaded that it would assuredly, experts predicted, mint a winner by Super Tuesday. No Democrat, the theory went, could win the nomination without big victories on the coasts.
With the old verities falling like so many bowling pins, it is perhaps no wonder that the nomination fell to the candidate best able to communicate – and embody – change.
The young first-term senator won not just because of a shrewd campaign that inspired legions of new voters, set fundraising records, and invested in oft-overlooked small-state caucuses. Nor was it just the tactical errors of Hillary Rodham Clinton, among them a strategy based on the flawed assumption of a Super Tuesday coronation.
Just as important, analysts say, was a clamor for fresh faces and new ideas from a party too long in the wilderness. For many voters, it seems, memories of the Bill Clinton era were never as uncomplicated as his wife's supporters hoped they would be, a situation worsened by what critics saw as the former president's intemperance on the campaign trail.
With President Bush's approval rating at an all-time low and more than 4 in 5 Americans telling pollsters they're unhappy with the country's direction, there has seldom been a riper moment for a sea change in Washington, analysts say.
"It's hard to know whether Obama would have gotten the nomination in another year," says Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. "But there was a sense in the Democratic Party that this was an unusual year, ... the country really was ready for something different. The difference happened to come in the guise of a black man, but it could just have easily been a Latino or a different woman. There was a sense that this was a time to break the mold."
And voters did break the mold. The nominating race opened with eight Democratic hopefuls. One by one, the candidates with venerable Washington résumés – among them statesmen like Sens. Joseph Biden Jr. and Christopher Dodd – fell away. Left standing were the nation's most successful female and black presidential candidates, a historymaking duel in a country that once denied women and African-Americans the right to vote.
Democrats' fault lines exposed
The nip-and-tuck battle yielded record turnouts, energized Democrats in states long resigned to irrelevance, and stirred hope for a more inclusive America.
But it also exposed demographic fault lines and stoked fears about the party's ability to unify in time for the general election. Senator Clinton relied on a coalition of women, older Americans, and working-class whites; Obama drew overwhelming support from blacks, the young, independents, and higher-earning professionals.
Those groups had long coexisted, not always comfortably, within the party. The historic candidacies of the leading Democrats buoyed the aspirations of two long-disenfranchised groups – women and blacks – as much as it threw the party's diversity into high relief.
"When the fight has been between white men, those demographic differences aren't brought front and center," says Earl Black, a Rice University political scientist and coauthor of "Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics." "When you have major candidates that are female or minority, that's when it really does create a greater test for the Democrats to resolve those tensions."
The final day of the popular voting ended like so many earlier ones: with a split decision. Clinton on Tuesday won 55 percent of the vote in South Dakota to Obama's 45 percent. In Montana, Obama won 56 percent to Clinton's 41 percent. The results, together with endorsements Tuesday from at least 40 superdelegates, pushed Obama well past the 2,118 delegates needed for the nomination.
Clinton entered the race last year as the hands-down favorite. She was by some accounts the most famous woman in the world. Her husband's eight years in the White House had secured her celebrity and ensured her access to the most powerful figures in the Democratic establishment.
Obama, by contrast, was until recently a virtual unknown. The son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, he spent most of his childhood overseas. He was a relatively obscure state senator in Illinois when his rousing speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention vaulted him to celebrity as a comer in a party desperate for rebirth.
A war of attrition
In the weeks before the first contest of the primary season, Clinton led in national polls by more than 30 percentage points. Obama's victory in Iowa – Clinton finished third, behind former Sen. John Edwards – shocked expectations. It was a testament to his superior grass-roots organization and a signal that a real race was in the making. It was also a turning point for blacks, a key Democratic voting bloc, who began abandoning the Clintons in droves amid evidence that Obama could win overwhelmingly white states.
Clinton and Obama differed little on most policy issues. But Obama's early opposition to the war in Iraq – and Clinton's refusal to apologize for her vote to authorize the use of force there – gave him an edge with the party's Internet-savvy liberal wing. His message of unity and hope, too, seemed more attuned to the zeitgeist than Clinton's partisan belligerence.
But Iowa was no knockout. A dogged campaigner, Clinton in short order won New Hampshire and Nevada. The next five months came to resemble a world championship boxing match, with the candidates trading victories across the electoral map. Clinton won the biggest states, New York and California.
But this proved to be a war of attrition, not shock and awe. Obama outmaneuvered her through the slow accretion of delegates in Midwestern and Plains states long overlooked by the Democratic Party.
Bill Clinton, popular with blacks during his presidency, further damaged his wife's candidacy with remarks in South Carolina seen by some as racially divisive. Soon Obama was winning more than 80 percent of the black vote, a bloc that propelled him to victory across a band of Southern states.
The assumption that Clinton would seal the nomination with a crushing set of victories on Feb. 5, Super Tuesday, never bore out, leaving her campaign flat-flooted and short on cash. Obama won the popular vote in 13 contests that day, to Clinton's 10. He went on to win the next 11 contests, netting more than 200 delegates and a lead that Clinton would never overcome.
Not even the flap over Obama's former minister could stop his momentum. By last month, even after her decisive victory in the swing state of Pennsylvania, Clinton had lost her lead among superdelegates – the elected officials and party leaders not bound by the popular vote in their home states.
Nominations are won on delegates. But in her speech to supporters Tuesday night, Clinton clung to the assertion – disputed by her rival – that she leads in the national popular vote. Her calculation includes the results in Michigan, where Obama's name did not appear on the ballot, and excludes four caucuses – in Iowa, Nevada, Washington, and Maine – where popular vote totals were not released.
Despite the divisions the race highlighted, Obama made bedfellows of groups not always drawn to the same ticket: the young liberals and professionals who had leaned in the past toward the likes of Bill Bradley and Howard Dean; unaffiliated independents; and blacks, who have tended toward candidates, like Bill Clinton, seen as more in step with the working class.