Column: Why Obama has won

Published on October 28, 2008

I am not, of course, referring to next week’s US presidential contest—although I would wager that, in the aggregate, both the national and state polls are accurate and that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama would win the White House by over 300 electoral votes. Seven days is a long time in politics; something cataclysmic, a national-security November surprise, could still happen.

There is the not insignificant matter, as Nicholas Kristof retells it, of the “endorsement from hell” that is bedeviling John McCain. “‘Al Qaeda will have to support McCain in the coming election,’ read a commentary on a password-protected Islamist Web site that is closely linked to Al Qaeda and often disseminates the group’s propaganda.”

The New York Times columnist parses that endorsement. “An American president who keeps troops in Iraq indefinitely, fulminates about Islamic terrorism, inclines toward military solutions and antagonizes other nations is an excellent recruiting tool. In contrast, an African-American president with a Muslim grandfather and a penchant for building bridges rather than blowing them up would give Al Qaeda recruiters fits.”

There is also the matter of McCain’s latest campaign strategy (the nth, but who’s counting?). The Big Idea now is that “socialist” Barack Obama would “spread the wealth” around, as the Democrat told “Joe the Plumber” in an Ohio driveway. This latest incarnation of the politics of fear seems to have gained some traction, never mind that the man’s real name isn’t Joe, he is not a licensed plumber and that under Obama’s plan he would actually be entitled to a tax cut.

And there is also the matter of “Joe the Biden,” as the McCain campaign has taken to calling Obama’s garrulous running mate. Last week Biden called on Americans to “gird their loins” because America’s enemies would certainly try to test a young president, in the same way Nikita Khrushchev tested John Kennedy. The Republicans have gone to town with this “gaffe,” despite a statement from George W. Bush’s own secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, that regardless of who wins, the transition to a new presidency may present terrorists with a target of opportunity.

A week, like they say, is an eternity in politics. But Obama can already lay claim to a real achievement, one that has lasting implications for the conduct of US politics.

I do not mean his tactical advantage over McCain, although that is no small thing. He is forcing the Republican nominee to spend the last days of the longest campaign in US history, as well as his last, limited-by-law dollars, protecting once-safe Republican strongholds such as Florida and Ohio. Just this Monday, the latest poll of polls for Georgia, the hub of Nixon’s famous Southern strategy, showed Obama closing in on McCain in that red state. These shifts have consequences that will be felt beyond 2008.

And I do not mean the financial juggernaut that has raised more money, primarily through small donations on the Internet, than both presidential candidates in 2004 spent, combined. Again, that is no small thing, and campaign finance may well be reformed, or updated, before the next presidential election.

It is in the culture of politics that Obama has already won: This former community organizer has turned his campaign into one massive organizing effort unlike anything seen before—a campaign that has the potential to change the political game in the United States forever.

Last Oct. 8, the Huffington Post published the first part of Zack Exley’s detailed report on Obama’s “ground game.” The piece begins: “Inside the Obama campaign, almost without anyone noticing, an insurgent generation of organizers has built the Progressive movement a brand new and potentially durable people’s organization, in a dozen states, rooted at the neighborhood level.”

What follows (verified by numerous other reports, such as those that can be found in Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com) is detail after revealing, riveting detail about a political movement. “Win or lose, ‘The New Organizers’ have already transformed thousands of communities—and revolutionized the way organizing itself will be understood and practiced for at least the next generation. Obama must continue to feed and lead the organization they have built—either as president or in opposition.”

Of the many passages I can quote, let this one do. “Patrick Frank was a junior at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, when he started volunteering for the campaign. Now, as an FO [field officer], his turf covers the university, and he has encouraged innovation. Sitting on the outskirts of a large campus rally that his teams had organized, he explained to me some of the modifications they were making to the teams model. ‘Rather than say we have X leadership roles to fill, we’re creating leadership roles for as many leaders as we have. So we have people in charge of whatever they ARE. We are saying, ‘What’s your social network?’ We say, ‘OK, you’re The Balcony Coordinator—your job is to go party at Balcony [a local bar] every weekend—like you do anyways—but now wear a Barack Obama button—and bring voter reg forms.’ Or, ‘Hey, you work at Brunos—when you go out on deliveries—as long as it’s OK with your boss—ask people if they’re registered. You’re going to be our, um, pizza coordinator.’ . . . There’s no end to what you can do when you have the power to empower people as leaders on campus. It’s beautiful. It’s awe-inspiring.”

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