A sense of shock and disappointment pervaded Sen. Barack Obama's campaign on Tuesday night, as an expected easy victory in New Hampshire turned into a tense primary battle and ultimately a gut-wrenching loss to Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Aides and attendees were despondent throughout the night, up until the moment when Obama addressed the crowd. Moments earlier it had been announced that he had lost the primary contest to Clinton.
"A few weeks ago, no one imagined that we would accomplish what we did here tonight in New Hampshire," Obama said. "For most of this campaign we were far behind, we always knew our climb would be steep. But in record numbers you came out and spoke for change."
The hopeful rhetoric did not match the shock felt by much of the crowd. On the eve of the election Obama held a 9-percentage point lead over Clinton, 39 to 30, in the trusted CNN/WMUR-TV poll. The Clinton campaign, moreover, had begun floating the idea that it would be comfortable with a close second place finish. There was even talk of the New Yorker skipping the next two primary battles -- in Nevada and South Carolina -- in favor of focusing on the bigger, later states.
By the end of the evening, the roles had seemingly been reversed. As the Clinton crowd thunderously cheered on its winning candidate, those who had gathered to celebrate Obama were left listening to a concession speech. Obama applauded Clinton for her well fought victory and mainly stuck to his campaign message. He took on his New York opponent just once, and subtly, declaring:
"We've been warned against offering the people false hope. But in the unlikely story of America there has never been anything false about hope. For when we have faced down impossible odds... generations of Americans have responded with a simply creed that sums up a spirit of a people. Yes we can. Yes we can. Yes we can."
The crowd screamed those three words back at him.
Even early in the night the disposition at the Obama headquarters was tense. The first election results to trickle in showed the Illinois Democrat trailing Clinton. Aides to the senator offered an optimistic outlook - he had trailed early in Iowa as well, the youth vote would come in late, the polls were over-pronounced, etc - but many fidgeted frantically on their BlackBerry's and rapidly refreshed their websites, scanning for the most up-to-date results. Still, those close to the senator maintained that he would sneak by.
As the evening progressed, any glimmer of good news became a catalyst for roars from the crowd. "Ready to go, fire it up," they chanted, as they had all week. But, privately, skepticism mounted.
"I expected him to be up by 10 percentage points," said Deb Bamford, a resident of nearby Dover. "I'm no longer confident. Maybe the media got it wrong. I was undecided up till the moment I voted. And I chose Obama because I wanted to go with a winner... Maybe I got it wrong."
Inside the press room, there was a curious buzz. For days, the Illinois Democrat had impressed and amazed journalists with the crowds he drew (in the thousands) and the speeches he gave. Following his big win in the Iowa caucus, conventional wisdom held that he would repeat the feat. But as the night progressed the prospect of a last minute upset by Clinton crept into the consciousness of the gaggle. Leads to stories required revision.
So what happened? There are multiple theories. Stu Rothenberg, of the Rothenberg Political Report, noted that Clinton received as much, if not more, support from voters who were as angry at the Bush administration as Obama. With Sen. John Edwards receiving less support in New Hampshire than in Iowa, it seemed likely that Obama would pick up his votes. But, as Rothenberg noted, the opposite may have been true.
"It's possible that Edwards's collapse may have helped Hillary - not Obama, as I would have assumed," said Rothenberg. "I have to wonder - with Edwards failing, why wouldn't the other "change" candidate benefit? Obama apparently didn't, while Clinton won downscale voters who might have found Edwards's message appealing."
Blame was also laid at the feet of the media and the pollsters, many of whom had crowned or predicted an Obama victory well before the first vote was cast.
"What happened to Democrat pollsters and exit polls?" asked John McLaughlin, a veteran Republican pollster who works on Fred Thompson's presidential campaign. "Was this like Helms 90 where voters wouldn't admit they were voting for Helms over Gantt?"
Obama, in his speech, offered no excuses or explanations for what had transpired. Sensing, perhaps, the disappointment of the crowd, he instead offered thanks for their support. "The reason our campaign has always been different," he said, "The reason we began this improbable journey almost a year ago is because it is not about what I will do as president, it is about what you, the people who love this country, the citizens of the United States of America can do to change it... That's what this election is all about. That's why tonight belongs to you."