Voters rewrite the political playbook

What a season! Even as many Americans heave huge sighs of relief that it’s finally over, no one can argue this primary campaign hasn’t been exciting, not to mention instructive. In a nomination process designed by the party elders to end by early February, voters kept getting in the way of the politicians’ best-laid plans.

As pundits bemoaned the length of the battle, and Obama supporters tried to shove Hillary Clinton out of the race, voters rushed to the polls in record-breaking numbers and donors wrote checks for record-breaking dollars.

How could anyone fault a season when both political parties surpassed by millions their previous highs in voter turnout? The more than 37 million who participated in this year’s Democratic contests swamped the 1988 showing of 23 million. And even though the GOP had a winner much earlier, 20 million voters marked Republican ballots, besting the 17 million in 2000.

Then there’s the money – more than a half-a-billion dollars given to the top two Democrats by the end of April. And it’s HOW those vast sums were raised that rewrote the political playbook. Obama’s ability to tap thousands of small donors over the Internet will be studied for election cycles to come. First student: Hillary Clinton, who was able to keep her campaign alive with online appeals (plus her personal loans).

Fund-raising marks just the tip of the Internet iceberg this season. Starting with Clinton’s announcement of her candidacy, billed as a “chat” with the voters, all the way through Father Michael Pfleger’s shout that “God will have the last word, not YouTube,” much of the campaign has been waged in cyberspace, even as the candidates slogged through state after state.

Obama knew that he could use the Web not only to raise money but also to enlist volunteers and to energize bloggers. He knew where young people, one of the core groups supporting him, got their information – two days after his speech on race, more than a million and a half people had gone online to see at least part of it – and he benefited from celebrity-studded videos, such as “Yes We Can,” that traveled from inbox to inbox.

But the Illinois senator also learned that the Web couldn’t be controlled. After all, YouTube provided videos of first Jeremiah Wright and then Michael Pfleger spewing racism from the pulpit. And his own remarks about “bitter” voters came back to bite Obama via the Internet, underlining the fact that there is no longer such a thing as a “private” meeting.

Those hits slowed Obama’s momentum enough to create another unheard of phenomenon – Clinton’s overwhelming victories in several key states AFTER her chance of winning the nomination was virtually nonexistent. Usually voters like to go with a winner, but seniors, women, Hispanics, lower-income whites and Catholics kept Clinton in the race right to the end.

What does that mean for the general election? That campaign now begins with warning signs for Barack Obama, whose effusiveness toward his opponent in recent days reveals his recognition of the rigors of the battle ahead. His supporters’ insistence that his appeal to young voters and independents will change the political map is only half borne out by the results of the season so far.

While independents, the most important swing vote in a general election, gave Obama an average of a 12-point margin in states where they could vote, and young people went for him by 20 points over Clinton, the predicted historic participation of voters under age 30 didn’t happen. More young voters showed up than in the past two elections, but their average of 14 percent of Democratic voters was in line with other years.

African-Americans, who produced an impressive average of 82 percent of their vote for Obama, also participated at about the same rate as in past elections. So, even in what should be a decidedly Democratic year, those numbers mean the presumptive nominee faces some rough months ahead trying to win over Clinton’s voters.

For now, though, he can revel in his historic victory and marvel at the wonders of this election season – one that’s unlikely to be repeated. On the last day of the primaries, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called on the party to make fundamental changes in the nomination process. But whatever the politicians come up with next, this season has shown that the voters are likely to have their own ideas.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at

Copyright 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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