Barack Obama’s victory in the hard-fought Democratic primary for an open US Senate seat from Illinois has instantaneously made him a political star. CNN analysts were calling the civil rights lawyer-turned-legislator “the man to watch in Illinois” and “the country’s hottest Senate candidate.” The New York Times and The Washington Post are weighing in with glowing reports. US Senator Jon Corzine, the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is ecstatic about having a smart, articulate and politically-savvy candidate who looks to be well positioned to pick up the seat of retiring Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald. Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe was even more ecstatic about the prospect that Obama, the child of Kenyan and American parents, would give the party a fresh young African-American leader to feature at its national convention in Boston.
For backers of Howard Dean’s failed presidential campaign, however, the Obama win offers something else: a bittersweet reminder of what might have been. There was a great deal about the Obama campaign that mirrored the most interesting and impressive aspects of the Dean candidacy. Obama made early and effective use of the internet and drew supporters together using Meet Ups. He built an enthusiastic network of supporters that included college students, suburban liberals and veteran progressive activists in Chicago. Like Dean, Obama was an early and outspoken critic of the Bush administration’s scheming to invade Iraq, he criticized the Patriot Act and he promised to “act like a Democrat” if elected. While most of organized labor endorsed another, “safer” candidate, Obama secured the support of the Service Employees International Union, a growing union that frequently flexes its political muscles in Democratic primaries and that also backed Dean. U.S. Representatives Jesse Jackson Jr. and Jan Schakowsky, both Dean backers, campaigned hard for Obama.
So what went right for Obama, who on Tuesday won a landslide victory over a field of better-financed and at least initially better-known Democratic contenders? How did he fight his way from the back of the pack to the front of a multi-candidate field and then, unlike Dean, stay there through election day? While it is important to be remember that national and state campaigns are dramatically different, it is fair to say that Obama did three things that Dean didn’t:
1.) Obama deliberately avoided peaking too soon. He started at the rear of the pack. As the candidate himself said, “I think it’s fair to say that the conventional wisdom was we could not win. We didn’t have enough money. We didn’t have enough organization. There was no way that a skinny guy from the South Side (of Chicago) with a funny name like Barack Obama could win a statewide race.” Obama and his media strategist, David Axelrod, intentionally kept expectations low. Where the Dean campaign spent a fortune in mid-2003 to win the media attention that would rocket him to frontrunner status, the Obama campaign kept its powder dry. “It was our plan to finish hard, when people were paying attention,” explained Axelrod. “One of the great disciplines of the campaign was not to spend money early and waste those resources.” Thus, while Obama was outspent 6-1 by one of his foes, millionaire Blair Hull, he was able to hold his own in the “air wars” at the close of the campaign.”