Welcome to the 2008 Presidential Election post-season. And now for the All-Star Honors. It was a wild ride, shaped by all manner of unprecedented outcomes, unruly dynamics, and unexpected faces. What follows is the most sensational all-star election team in history. As expected, most of the spots went to the winning team.
Most Valuable Player
The 2008 Election MVP is #44, the 6'3" left-hander from Hawaii. On his resume: raised more money than any campaign in history ($700M+); inspired 15M new or lapsed voters; singlehandedly ignited a tidal wave of global optimism; redefined modern campaigning with the Internet; defeated not one but several titanic opponents (Clinton, McCain) -- and, oh yeah, overcame gi-normous historical barriers. The 44th President of the United States did all this without breaking a sweat. Not bad for someone with "no experience."
The Runner Up
Never mind the naysayers: this man won't stay down. Since Y2K alone, the Mac suffered a heartbreaking primary defeat, resuscitated himself within his party to launch a second presidential bid, lost his frontrunner status (and a good chunk of change), then rose from the ashes to snatch the GOP nomination. And for all the criticism, the former Navy pilot came within an economic meltdown of the 2008 Winner's Cup. His incredibly gracious concession speech proves that the fundamentals of the man are strong. McCain returns to the Senate with a Goldwater-esque opportunity to transform himself from defeated presidential candidate to honored elder statesman.
The Risk Takers
JFK won a Pulitzer for his Profiles in Courage. 239,000 Iowans get an All-Star nod for theirs. On January 3, Iowa's Democratic caucus-goers (most of them women) defied conventional wisdom and gave Obama a decisive victory in the primary's opening round. Long before 65M other Americans joined in the chorus, residents of the Tall Corn State said, "Yes, We Can!" And when these mavericks of the Midwest embraced the half Kenyan son of a Kansan for the presidency, the whole world sat up and took notice. Lest history forget, we'll always owe a debt of gratitude to the Hawkeye State for helping a young Harvard grad fell one of history's great barriers.
Months before the bailout gave them something better to do, economists at the University of Maryland tried to quantify Oprah's impact on Obama's primary win. We may never know how the Queen of Talk altered the race for the Prince of Change. But what's perfectly clear is this: the first major foray into politics by arguably the world's most trusted face gave Obama incredible media coverage less than a month before Iowa. It also lent him a sparkle that ultimately drew voters, celebrities and leaders to his side. Our president wouldn't be president if he hadn't won Iowa. And make no mistake about it: Barack Hussein Obama wouldn't have won Iowa without Oprah's unusual and effective backing. "The chosen one," as Lady O called him, was in small part chosen by her.
The Wright Words
No presidential campaign would be complete without (at least) one epic setback: Reagan (Iowa loss), Dukakis (Willie Horton), Clinton #1 (New Hampshire), Bush #2 (the recount), etc. This March, Reverend Wright was the fire that threatened to burn up Obama's candidacy. As "God damn America!" ran 24/7 on cable and the Internet, Obama's prospects in Pennsylvania, Ohio and elsewhere seemed to melt away. Then came the second great American speech of the 21st century (a certain 2004 DNC speech was the first). Obama's March 18th address on race at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia reset the campaign narrative -- and media coverage with it. With the boil subsided, North Carolina and Indiana primary voters (just barely) cauterized the campaign's wound and let the healing begin.
The A Team
Into the company of Lee Atwater, James Carville, and Karl Rove enters a chief campaign strategist for the ages. Don't let the throwback comb-over fool you: the most forward-thinking man in politics may well be David Axelrod. His record is impeccable: a 2004 Senate victory, terrific pre-campaign positioning inside and outside the Senate, the Iowa victory, February's 11-state primary run, debate prep, campaign commercials and more. But along with what's been called a "flawless" campaign strategy, Axelrod's true genius was allowing other all-stars to do what they did best. From well-known names like Tom Daschle and David Plouffe to behind-the-scenes smarty-pants like Valerie Jarrett (key adviser) and Robert Gibbs (communications director)--Obama's team was loaded down with talent. Like Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson did with Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman in the 90s, Axelrod allowed multiple stars to shine at once. No easy feat. Just ask the McCain aides currently leaking Palin dirt to the press.
Gas prices didn't do it. McCain's age didn't do it. Iraq, the budget deficit, Sarah Palin's interview with Katie Couric didn't come close. It was the economic meltdown--and the contrasting reactions of McCain (suspend my campaign) and Obama (a President must multi-task)--that ultimately broke open this election. As the economy melted at warp-speed through early October, Obama secured a steady lead in the polls--a lead he never lost.
Any honest observer will agree (without smirking) to the following: that without the 44-year-old chief executive of the nation's largest state, the McCain campaign would have been DOA after the RNC. Yes, Governor Palin was a poorly vetted and flawed choice. But she changed the game entirely. In the first 48 hours after Palin's convention debut, the Obama campaign might have delegitimized her on the basis of her Alaska corruption controversies and pregnant daughter. They didn't. And so for the next 30 days, Sarah the Barracuda gave the McCain campaign new life, new energy and new vitality. Call her what you will: the winking woman from Wasilla helped keep America interested in the most significant presidential race in history.
If money is the mother's milk of American politics, the Obama campaign built the biggest dairy machine in American history. Like her candidate, Penny Pritzker (Obama's National Finance Chair) is by no means a Washington insider. The 49-year-old scion of the Hyatt Hotel fortune got behind Illinois' favorite son long before it was the "in" thing to do. Pritzker's millions not only helped Obama out-organize Clinton in February but funded important counter-ads during the "cling-to-their-guns" and Jeremiah Wright fiascos of the spring. During the final push, Pritzer's money machine allowed Obama to run 2-3 times more commercials than McCain in key battleground states including the "new blue" states (see Honorable Mentions below).
Next to Oprah's, Caroline Kennedy's rare and poignant endorsement was the second most important of the campaign. Kennedy's January 27th piece in the New York Times ("A President Like My Father") draped the full weight, glory and elegance of Camelot around Obama's shoulders--positioning him as this generation's JFK. While Obama went on to lose the Massachusetts primary to Senator Clinton a few days later, Kennedy's endorsement (along with her uncle Teddy's) elevated the Illinois Senator to a different level in the minds of millions, giving him a gravitas and a sparkle he never lost.
What's tougher than a pit bull in lipstick? Turns out, a comedienne pretending to be a pit bull in lipstick. Sarah Palin survived the bad press and botched interviews, but Tina Fey's dead-on impressions ultimately killed the candidate's approval numbers. From early September to Election Day, Saturday Night Live's leading lady did side-splitting impressions of Alaska's Governor. By Halloween Palin's unfavorable ratings were up almost 20%, and 59% of registered voters felt she wasn't qualified to be President. Sure, the Couric and Gibson interviews diminished the public's view of Palin. But Fey was the real impact player here. No comic has had such an effect on presidential politics since Chevy Chase reshaped public opinion of incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1975-76 with his hilarious impersonations of a bumbling chief executive.
Chris Hughes was in high school less than ten years ago. Maybe that's why he ran such a kickass digital operation. The openly gay North Carolina native co-founded Facebook with his Harvard roommates--then walked away from millions in stock options to lead Obama's digital team. The result? The most transcendent victory in global democratic history. The role of the Internet in Obama's success is now the stuff of legend. The little-website-that-could raised money ($700M+), organized volunteers (1M+), turned out voters (65M+), countered false rumors, and inspired billions at home and abroad. All under the guidance of a 24-year-old digital chief bringing his unique understanding of the web's viral nature to the world of presidential politics. ^5!
Rachel Maddow, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, Keith Olbermann and Sean Hannity all burnished their stars during this election season. But quiet as it's kept, Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's Hardball, had as big an impact on this election as any talking head. From his Clinton critiques during the primary to his "thrill going up my leg" comment about the race speech, his contempt for McCain's election tactics to his blunt pronouncements on the debates and the conventions--Matthews truly shaped political insider coverage of the campaign. To be sure, Hardball draws far fewer viewers than Maddow or Olbermann (just under 1M vs. their 2M). But Matthews was must-see-TV for political insiders, bloggers and media types, meaning his hard-hitting comments reverberated far throughout the campaign.
This spring, when a trailing but gaining Hillary Clinton challenged the nomination rules by looking for a new way to determine the Democratic Party's nominee, Nancy Pelosi firmly pronounced that the party's nomination principles should remain "the same." Noting that the super delegates should not overturn the will of the elected delegates, the Speaker of the House frustrated Clintonites and helped assure Obama's path to the nomination.
It's counterintuitive, I know. But Senator Clinton's refusal to go quietly into that good night may have helped Obama usher in his new day. How? (1) Because the primary continued two months longer than needed, the race reached key battleground states in the spring, prompting 1M more voters to register in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. (2) The increased media coverage that came with the extended primary--local newspaper profiles, TV stories, appearances on The View and other shows--allowed more Americans to "get comfortable" with Obama. (3) Clinton tested Obama on his toughest general election challenge: could he secure enough typically Democratic working class white voters? By identifying that elephant in the room early, the country and the media had more time to address it than had it been raised in Willie Horton-like fashion near the end of a general election. So before we drub Senator Clinton for overstaying her welcome, let's remember that she may have (indirectly) helped usher Obama into her old digs.
1. Florida Governor Charlie Crist
Who helped McCain wrap up the nomination with a critical primary endorsement
The influential liberal political organization that rallied to Obama during the primaries and kept the liberal base motivated through Election Day
Whose online video, "Yes We Can," energized young Obama voters at a critical point
4. Nate Silver
The outstanding quantitative analyst who shaped the media discussion of the race
5. African-American Voters
Who provided almost 1 of 5 of Obama's general election votes
6. Indiana & The "New Blues"
NC, NM, NV, CO, OH, IN, VA