Why Barack Obama Won in 2008 and What it Means for the Republicans in 2012
By Spartacus Thrace
November 3, 2010, marked the first day of the 2012 Presidential Campaign: Barack Obama and the Left are well advanced in their preparations for what may be the American political showdown of the century. Assuming that Barack Obama will be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 2012, conservatives have a lot to do to get ready.
As the results of the 2010 midterms show, a lot has changed since 2008. Whereas Obama and the Democrats reigned supreme in 2008, they have now lost control of the House of Representatives to a resurgent Republican Party and are threatened with a full-scale rout in 2012. While it might be easy for the Republican Establishment to become complacent about the prospects, conservatives should prepare for the showdown by fully understanding why the Republicans were beaten in 2008, and how that defeat is relevant to preparations for 2012.
Barack Obama won and John McCain lost primarily due to the following:
(1) The Economy. The Republican ticket was within the margin of error when the global economic crisis hit. The bankruptcy on September 15th of Lehman Brothers Wall Street investment bank founded brought on the collapse of the McCain campaign. The credit crisis, sparked by a record number of home foreclosures, sent the stock market plummeting. Voters blamed Republicans, the party of deregulation, and the problems for the Republicans magnified exponentially when McCain said immediately afterward that the fundamentals of the economy were strong, a gaffe from which the campaign never recovered as the Obama’s “change” theme began to take hold with undecided voters.1
There is little doubt that the economy will be the major issue in the 2012 campaign. Attacks on Obama’s Marxism will not be an effective substitute for policy and the Republicans are going to have to lead with ideas to turn the economy around that are demonstrably superior to those of the Democrats. Between now and then, the Republicans also will have to advance a comprehensive economic agenda that includes economic recovery through smaller government, tax reduction, deregulation of private industry, repeal of extra-constitutional legislation, rollbacks in entitlements (including Social Security Medicare, and Medicaid, reduction of the national debt, energy independence, and strong national defense even before the Party’s nominee is selected. This should include positions calling for spending limits that are at least 10% below current government expenditure levels, the abolition of earmarks, and open publication on the internet of major bills before they are voted on in either chamber. In the public square, the conservatives will also have to win the information war with the Left through exposure of the flaws, fallacies and misrepresentations in the Left’s economic arguments. This includes a lot of myth-busting, including educating the public about just how destructive the Left’s economic policies and practices have been over the years, from the New Deal all the way through Obama’s Porkulus.
(2) John McCain’s temperament, age, and judgment. Age surfaced as an issue even before McCain turned 72 during the Democratic National Convention — when 21% of respondents told the Pew Research Center that McCain was “too old to be president.” By late October, this figure had grown to 34%. Whether this was fair or not, many voters were simply not comfortable with that prospect. This same survey also showed McCain losing ground on personal traits, with 41% of those surveyed reporting that McCain had poor judgment, while only 29% felt the same way about Obama. McCain also was a poor campaigner without a real message (“I’m not George Bush” was the best he could do), too critical of Obama, and erratic. Many voters thought that McCain was being impulsive and even erratic, pulling an ill-advised campaign stunt, or both, when picked Sarah Palin as his running mate and, later, when he suddenly announced that he was “suspending” his campaign to go to Washington to address the Wall Street crisis — and found when he got there that there was not a thing he could do about it. Too many swing voters came to the conclusion that McCain was over-the-hill and woefully unsuited to be President, and many Republicans who did vote for him did so without enthusiasm.2
John McCain should be the moribund Republican Establishment’s last nominee for President, and his nomination should be the last time the Republican Party chooses a “moderate” (which is a codeword for “lacking consistent principles”) to run for President. For those Republicans who want to avoid a similar fiasco in 2012, now is the time to start vetting principled conservative candidates for both President and Vice President, and to look for fresh blood in the process. This fresh blood will come from the the surging conservative movement, which has saved the life of the Republican Party and made it a national party again.
(3) Sarah Palin. The Alaskan governor was pure, raw political talent that mobilized and excited the Republican base, but she threatened the Republican Establishment, scared away independent voters, and presented an easy target for derision and abuse by the Leftists in the Democratic Party and the mainstream media. While she did well in the debate against Sen. Joseph Biden, she failed to gain sufficient credibility or acceptability with the voters that any newcomer needs to survive. A CBS-New York Times poll conducted the week before the election found 59% of Americans said she was unqualified to be president or vice president. Being mocked and ridiculed on “Saturday Night Live” also drove down her approval ratings. Critics viewed Palin as merely a “sugar high” for the Republicans and the McCain campaign, and after it wore off she had a negative impact on Republican chances of winning on November 4, 2008.3
One of the great injustices of the 2008 campaign is that Sarah Palin was so badly damaged by the Left and enemies within the Republican Establishment in 2008 that she remains damaged in the eyes of many voters. Her cause was not helped when she quit as Alaska’s governor in mid-term. The lessons in the Palin case (and the 2010 midterm elections) are that the Republican Party needs to do a much better job at identifying, nurturing, and protecting its young starting early in the campaign season, and that includes candidates for local, state, and U.S. Congressional and Senate offices as well as vice presidential candidates. That having been said, however, Palin is a rising star in the Republican Party who is working hard for the conservative cause and whose rising credibility and acceptability among voters could ultimately bring her the party’s nomination for president in 2012.
(4) The shrinking Republican brand. When Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, 40% of Americans self-identified as Republicans. McCain and Palin ran on a Republican ticket in a year when 27% percent of Americans identified themselves as Republicans. President George W. Bush’s approval rating hovered below 30% during the campaign and stood at 23% in the latest Gallup poll before the election. The single policy that hurt Bush’s standing the most was the decision to invade and occupy Iraq. McCain championed this course of action throughout the campaign. Other factors that eroded Republican standing included the perception that the Republican Congress had used its majority to pursue a narrow and parochial legislative agenda, run up huge federal budget deficits, and enrich themselves and their conies at the expense of the greater public good. Ethical lapses and criminality landed several prominent Republican congressional leaders in prison and tarnished the images of others. McCain hoped in vain that his self-generated reputation as a “maverick” on certain highly visible issues would spare him from being dragged down by the toxic Republican Party label. It did not. Finally, McCain was operating in a fluid media environment in which it appeared that every leftist with access to the media felt free to bash the Republican Party in general and the McCain-Palin ticket in particular.4
The Republican brand is no longer shrinking, but it certainly isn’t healthy. The conservative movement in general, and the Tea Party movement in particular, has had a purifying effect on the brand, and this in turn has caused many opportunistic RINOs such as Florida Governor Charlie Crist to read the handwriting on the wall and abandon the Republican Party. This purifying effect is most pronounced at the grassroots, Republican Executive Committee (REC) level, but it has not yet permeated up to the state and national levels of the Republican Party. So long as the Republican Establishment maintains control of the upper echelons and excludes or suppresses the conservative movement, the image of the GOP as the party of Big Government and the super-rich, will remain in the minds of many voters and will be the single biggest impediment to Republican success in 2012.
(5) The war. Two-thirds of Americans wanted it ended. Obama said he was against it from the beginning. Iraq helped deny Hillary Clinton the nomination, and McCain, who did not offer a timetable out, left himself vulnerable to comparisons with Bush and Cheney.5
War will be an issue in the 2012 election campaign, and avoiding or minimizing this very complex issue is not an option. The drawdown in Iraq and continuing terrorist threats emanating from the Middle East have lengthened American patience with military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that patience will wear thin if American casualties continue to mount and tangible evidence of success on the ground is not forthcoming. Conservatives and the leadership of the Republican Party have to come up with serious proposals for dealing with this issue while continuing to support the President’s constitutional authority to wage war. Any lack of leadership on this issue will undercut the Republicans’ traditionally strong stand on national defense and will weaken its bid for the presidency.
(6) The message. Obama’s staff built their message around the middle class in a year of middle class anxiety. That only made McCain’s argument about preserving what the Leftists in the media termed “tax cuts for the rich” more difficult, especially in light of stories about the breakup of McCain’s first marriage and his present wealth.6
Obama’s message has fallen flat in the midterms, but he is not out of the game. The Republican Party message should be simple, direct, and unabashedly conservative and be designed to present the voters with a clear choice in 2012. It should also build on the momentum generated by the midterms. Unfortunately, that message has not emerged so far, and it will come too late and be too muddled and weak if left to the Republican Establishment to decide. Rather, the message will likely have to be formulated by conservatives operating in and out of the GOP and imposed on the Republican Party.
(7) The debates. Obama was a new figure who was an unproven quantity to many Americans, but he he looked confident and presidential in the debates, and surveys showed independent and older voters broke to his side once they were comfortable with him as Commander-in-Chief. Obama’s appeal crossed racial lines, and voters liked that he appeared to be a devoted family man free of the type of personal scandals and indiscretions that destroyed McCain’s credibility when it came to family values.7
Obama’s oratorial skills have become a bit of a joke since people now have a clear impression of how inept he is when speaking without a teleprompter, but he still looks cool and confident when in the public light. The presidential debates in the 2012 campaign will be one of the most important ways that voters will form lasting impressions of the candidates. The Republican challenger will have to be well-prepared and extremely good on his or her feet to meet and exceed the expectations of American voters, and a stiff, seemingly preoccupied, and disrespectful (e.g., referring to Obama as “that one”) Republican debater like McCain was in 2008 will be a disaster in 2012.
(8) Young voters and minorities fell for Obama early and stayed with him. Some 47 million Americans were under 30 years of age in 2008, and 40% of them were minorities, is a huge cohort. Most align with the Democratic Party. In 2004, the 18-29 age bracket was the age group won by John Kerry, who carried them by an estimated 9%. An extensive Reader’s Digest survey done this summer by pollster John Della Volpe showed that Hillary Clinton led McCain by about the same percentage, but when Obama was paired against McCain, this number jumped to a 23 points. Volpe subsequently released another poll, done under the auspices of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, showing that these numbers had held steady. This gave Obama an insurmountable advantage over McCain. The long-term danger for the Republicans would be that if this generation, which is larger, more diverse, and more tolerant than the baby-boomers who formerly dominated national politics, vote for the Democratic Party a couple of times they may tend to vote Democratic through out their adult lifetimes.8
Many of the young voters seem to have become disillusioned with “Hope & Change” and stayed home in 2010 or even voted Republican. While those who still believe in Obama cannot be expected to stay home in 2012, young voters who are concerned about the future job market and share conservative values on at least some issues present an opportunity to grow the conservative movement and the Republican Party beyond their traditional bases, especially as the Baby-Boomers who have dominated presidential electorates begin to die off. Neglecting this opportunity could cost the Republicans dearly in 2012.
(9) Mastery of Modern Technology and the Internet. Democrats closed the “technology gap” and then some. In the past several presidential elections, Republicans have had it all over the Democrats when it came to harnessing computer, network, and Internet technology to run campaigns and mine votes. The 2008 campaign was owned by the Obama campaign. It harnessed the amazing power of human networks, learning as it went, and delegating authority to vast numbers of tech-savvy supporters to keep the MyObama.com network viral and vibrant. In early September, when Obama made a slip of the tongue by using the phrase “lipstick on a pig” days after Sarah Palin quipped in her acceptance speech that the difference between a “hockey mom” and a pit bull was lipstick, Obama’s interactive cadre had within hours posted on YouTube a clip of John McCain using the same phrase himself. And so it went for almost two years.9
Conservatives and the Republican Party do not have anything matching the technological capabilities and unified organization of Organizing for America. Although they appear to have closed this technology gap in many aspects, one of the biggest challenges to conservatives and the Republican Party is to achieve and maintain technological and organizational superiority over the Democrats at the local, state, and national levels. This is where national and state-level Republican Party leadership is critical, but still lacking.
(10) Money. The Obama campaign realized during the primary contest that they had developed an extremely broad donor base, which he could keep going back to for money. As a result, Obama broke an earlier pledge and opted out of public financing, allowing him to raise at least $200 million in September and October. He attracted more than 3 million donors and collected more than $650 million overall. He raised more than twice as much money as McCain, and was able to pay for staff and advertisements in states and in numbers that McCain could not. Obama even bought advertisement space embedded in video games, and his 30-minute infomercial six days before the election drew more than 34 million.10
One thing that is different this year is that in July 2010 the United States Supreme Court decided in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case that removed limits on corporate expenditures for advocacy advertisements that are not coordinated with a candidate’s campaign, essentially putting corporations on par with big unions when it comes to political campaign spending. It’s a source of money that will flow to benefit candidates of both parties, but the Democrats will do their utmost to overturn the decision by legislation, and it will be a campaign issue in 2012. Another thing that is different is that conservative voters are now more prone to give to individual candidates instead of to Republican Party organizations such as the RNC and RNCC, making proportionately more funds available to conservative candidates. That having been said, fundraising will not be as easy in a depressed economy as it would be in good times, and so fundraising remains one of the very biggest challenges to conservatives and Republicans as they move toward the 2012 elections.
(11) Obama’s better ground game. Barack Obama waged a nearly flawless campaign for the presidency. The 2008 election was also more of a repudiation of the ruling Republican Party than it was an embrace of liberalism.11 Nonetheless, the Democrats made few mistakes in the campaign and the Republicans made many.
In 2012, the Republicans will have to mount a modern, national campaign that can beat Obama and OFA with a candidate who is not prone to the sort of gaffes missteps as happened with McCain. This will be made easier in 2012 than in 2008 because of the immensely greater number of elected Republican officials who came in on the Republican wave of 2010. Harnessing all of these officials and their respective campaigns and GOTV efforts will be one of the more daunting tasks of the Republican Party and its presidential nominee, but it can be done if the effort begins soon.
In the final analysis, however, conservatives cannot putt all of their faith in the Republican Establishment, which remains riddled with opportunistic “moderates” who will sell out principle for opportunity and who provide no effective leadership for the Republican rank-and-file. Conservatives must instead continue to build up their own movement and organizational structures outside of and parallel to those of the Republican Party while waging a campaign to decisively influence, if not gain outright control of, Republican Party structures. This parallel activity should include fundraising, media, and GOTV efforts dedicated to the support of conservative candidates. Where conservatives dominate, the structures should be merged; where not they should remain separate and autonomous but with appropriate coordination. The conservative movement and the Republican Party remain distinct and at times antagonistic entities, and if and when this will ever change is uncertain. Given the current state of the Republican Party, it makes more sense for conservatives to maintain their self-sufficiency than to allow themselves and their political efforts to be subsumed into the Republican Party.
1 Carl M. Cannon, “Loose Cannon Blog: Ten Reasons Why Obama Won,” [link broken] Reader’s Digest.com, November 5, 2008; Paul Rogers, “Election Blog: How Did Obama Win? The Top 10 Reasons,” ContraCostaTimes.com, November 5, 2008 12:27:13 AM PST; Paul Maslin, “How Obama won, by the numbers,” Salon.com, November 6, 2008; Adam Nagourney, Jim Rutenberg, and Jeff Zeleny, “Near-Flawless Run Is Credited in Victory,” New York Times, November 5, 2008.
2 Carl M. Cannon, “Loose Cannon Blog: Ten Reasons Why Obama Won,” Reader’s Digest.com, November 5, 2008; Paul Rogers, “Election Blog: How Did Obama Win? The Top 10 Reasons,” ContraCostaTimes.com, November 5, 2008 12:27:13 AM PST; Adam Nagourney, Jim Rutenberg, and Jeff Zeleny, “Near-Flawless Run Is Credited in Victory,” New York Times, November 5, 2008.
3 Paul Rogers, “Election Blog: How Did Obama Win? The Top 10 Reasons,” em>ContraCostaTimes.com, November 5, 2008 12:27:13 AM PST; Paul Maslin, “How Obama won, by the numbers,” Salon.com, November 6, 2008; Jann S. Wenner, “How Obama Won,” [link broken] Rolling Stone.com, November 27, 2008 1:45 PM.
4 Carl M. Cannon, “Loose Cannon Blog: Ten Reasons Why Obama Won,” Reader’s Digest.com, November 5, 2008; Paul Rogers, “Election Blog: How Did Obama Win? The Top 10 Reasons,” ContraCostaTimes.com, November 5, 2008 12:27:13 AM PST.
5 Paul Rogers, “Election Blog: How Did Obama Win? The Top 10 Reasons,” ContraCostaTimes.com, November 5, 2008 12:27:13 AM PST.
6 Paul Rogers, “Election Blog: How Did Obama Win? The Top 10 Reasons,” ContraCostaTimes.com, November 5, 2008 12:27:13 AM PST.
7 Paul Rogers, “Election Blog: How Did Obama Win? The Top 10 Reasons,” ContraCostaTimes.com, November 5, 2008 12:27:13 AM PST; Carl M. Cannon, “Loose Cannon Blog: Ten Reasons Why Obama Won,” Reader’s Digest.com, November 5, 2008.
8 Carl M. Cannon, “Loose Cannon Blog: Ten Reasons Why Obama Won,” Reader’s Digest.com, November 5, 2008; Paul Maslin, “How Obama won, by the numbers,” Salon.com, November 6, 2008; Jann S. Wenner, “How Obama Won,” Rolling Stone.com, November 27, 2008 1:45 PM.
9 Carl M. Cannon, “Loose Cannon Blog: Ten Reasons Why Obama Won,” Reader’s Digest.com, November 5, 2008.
10 Richard Lister, “Why Barack Obama Won,” BBC News, November 5, 2008 04:45:15 GMT; Carl M. Cannon, “Loose Cannon Blog: Ten Reasons Why Obama Won,” Reader’s Digest.com, November 5, 2008; Paul Rogers, “Election Blog: How Did Obama Win? The Top 10 Reasons,” ContraCostaTimes.com, November 5, 2008 12:27:13 AM PST
11 Paul Rogers, “Election Blog: How Did Obama Win? The Top 10 Reasons,” ContraCostaTimes.com, November 5, 2008 12:27:13 AM PST; Jann S. Wenner, “How Obama Won,” Rolling Stone.com, November 27, 2008 1:45 PM; Adam Nagourney, Jim Rutenberg, and Jeff Zeleny, “Near-Flawless Run Is Credited in Victory,” New York Times, November 5, 2008.