The big question of Barack Obama's campaign has always been whether his high-flying rhetoric could ever produce real results. Sure, he could create crowds visible from space, but during the summer—when his polls flattened and his backers got nervous—political elites wondered whether he had peaked. He was the girl you dated, not the girl you married, plenty of political analysts told me.
Not any more. In the campaign's first test, Obama has beaten two tough opponents by a healthy margin. For a candidate promising to create a movement—an "army for change," as he calls it—a victory like this not only helps his political prospects in the upcoming primaries. It substantiates a key element of the theory of his candidacy, that he can mobilize people behind a movement.
Obama won with a large portion of young voters, a constituency that has been flaky in the past. The day before the caucus, at his rally in Coralville, Iowa, you could see that they weren't going to dink out this time. Obama raised the roof. Mimicking the pundits, he told the crowd thick with young voters, "Obama has this lead, but 'aw, those people, they're not going to show up. Students never going to show up.' " The crowd screamed back: "Noooo!"
"That's what they said," responded Obama to more cries of "No." "Are you going to prove them wrong?"
The crowd erupted. "I can't hear you," he said, putting his hand to his ear. "Are you going to prove them wrong? Are you going to show up and caucus tomorrow?" The crowd was in such a frenzy that they could have rushed the stage. "I believe you're going to show up."
Obama's ability to turn out new and young voters shows that he learned the lesson of the Howard Dean campaign in 2004, which had a similar kind of youthful exuberance but was sloppy about making sure its new voters turned out. It also means he can now make a strong argument to Democrats about his viability in a general election. He can grab those independents who have grown disenchanted with George W. Bush over the past several years.
When it came down to the wire, the Democratic race wasn't about issues but about political style and governing philosophy. John Edwards ran on his ability to fight, and Hillary Clinton ran on her experience. Obama ran as a conciliator who would transcend Washington's endemic partisanship by building new coalitions. "There's always somebody to tell why the system can't change," he said in his speeches. "If you are not willing to accept what the cynics say. We will heal this nation we will repair the world. If you believe. Let's go change the world."
All of the candidates were selling brands of change. But Obama was more convincing because he embodies change, a point he started to make more explicitly as he approached the finish line. "I have to talk about hope a lot in my campaign," he said. "Our signs don't say Obama. They say hope. I have to talk about hope because that's why I'm here today. I wasn't born into privilege. I was born to a teenage mom. Father left when I was 2. Raised by my grandparents. The odds say I shouldn't be standing here today. They gave me love, an education, and they gave me hope."
Tonight, his hopes are on the rise.