How Barack Obama's message found its mark.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 3 2008 10:47 PM

Hope Inc.

How Obama's message found its mark.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama thanks supporters after the Iowa caucuses

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.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Technocracy
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.