Fear and Loathing on the 2008 Campaign Trail, Part 1: Things Get Nasty

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)
The 2008 Democrat Party nomination campaign started with 10 candidates and was eventually winnowed down to two- Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.  Everyone knew it was a question of when, not if, Hillary Clinton would run.  However, ever since his keynote address at the 2004 Democrat convention, Barack Obama’s star was rising quickly.  Hillary depended on strong support from the black community since they strongly supported her husband in 1992 and 1996.  Barack Obama represented the best chance of any black person going as far as possible politically.
After they both announced their candidacies, Clinton consistently led Obama in polling by double digits.  She even held a huge lead over him among African-Americans.  By the time 2007 came to a close, Clinton had more endorsements from members of the Congressional Black Caucus than Obama.  Going into the primary season, Obama’s strategy was to stay close before South Carolina, then use that primary to slingshot into an eventual lead.  In Iowa, Obama won the caucuses by capitalizing on the youth vote and voters fed up with the war in Iraq.  Going into New Hampshire, he had the momentum and Clinton had none.  In fact, she finished third behind Obama and John Edwards in Iowa.  Then Obama made an epic faux pas when he seemed to dismiss Hillary as “she’s likeable enough,” a not-too-subtle dig at suggestions she was not a likeable person.  This comment doomed his chances in New Hampshire and Hillary used the opportunity to take that state’s primary and the following Nevada caucuses.  Then it was onto South Carolina.Obama’s predictions that South Carolina would be an important state was coming true.  As primary day neared, Obama started to pull close, then ahead of Clinton in the polls out of the state.  This seemed to irritate Bill Clinton who dismissed them noting that Jesse Jackson led in the polls in 1984 and 1988 and did not win, he referred to Obama as “a roll of the dice,” and criticized Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War as a “fairy tale.”  This prompted a public dressing down by Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina- a powerful voice in Democrat circles in the state, especially among blacks.  If Obama made a rhetorical misstep in New Hampshire, Clinton stepped on a landmine in South Carolina. 

There, just as voters were making up their minds, she said that Obama was a skilled orator with few accomplishments.  That was fair enough (and true), but she went further comparing him to Martin Luther King, Jr.  She noted that King was the leader of the civil rights movement and a great orator, but it was a President (a white one at that) who actually got civil rights legislation passed.  In one interview, she managed to apparently diminish the efforts of King.

The result was staggering and a blow to Hillary.  Obama managed to take 55% of the vote overall- 30 points ahead of her.  He took 25% of the white vote with the remainder being split between Clinton and Edwards, but most importantly, Obama took 78% of the black vote which was important since they were more than half the Democrat electorate in South Carolina.  The drama in South Carolina also had lingering effects that extended beyond that state.  In response to Obama’s victory, several black leaders elsewhere started to endorse Obama.  John Lewis, a powerful member of Congress and within the civil rights community from Georgia, withdrew his endorsement of Clinton and endorsed Obama instead.  Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) threw his support behind Obama after roundly criticizing Clinton’s racial politicking in South Carolina.

The campaign did not end in South Carolina, but it was a turning point.  Clear demographic divisions started to develop with the Obama coalition consisting of blacks (he was near 80% support there), young voters, and college-educated white liberals.  Clinton, on the other hand, had the Latino vote as well as blue-collar whites.  There were skirmishes along the way, particularly when the incendiary rhetoric of Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, came to light.  This forced Obama into a long speech about race that never really addressed Wright per se.  Each candidate’s wagon was big enough to win votes, carry states, and amass delegates, but not big enough to decide the race.

Obama gained an advantage in the delegate count which left Clinton’s only chance at the nomination in the hand of the super-delegates.  However, if they were to decide the nomination, then Obama could claim that Clinton went around the will of the primary voters and was nominated undemocratically.  If all this sounds familiar, it should because the same dynamic occurred in 2016 between Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

As the primary season wound down, things were not going well between Hillary and Obama.  In Pennsylvania, Obama sharpened his tone and attacked Clinton for her failed health care initiative while she was First Lady and she counter-attacked and charged Obama with mimicking Republicans.  In a 60 Minutes interview, she was asked if Obama was a Muslim and she answered with the flippant caveat, “…as far as I know.”  In an interview with USA Today, she noted that Obama’s support among white voters was weakening and that she represented the best option to win over blacks and whites.  She compared Obama’s pending primary victory in Oregon with the picture of George W. Bush on an aircraft carrier under the “Mission Accomplished” banner.  

Perhaps her biggest misstep was talking about the assassination of RFK.  Trying to make a point about nominations going down to the primary wire, she did the politically stupid: never raise the specter of assassination to explain your rival’s political chances.  Forced to apologize, she made matters worse by trying to change the subject.  Because Florida and Michigan moved their primaries up in the calendar in defiance of the DNC, it raised the possibility their delegates would not be seated at the late August convention.  She compared that fight with the recent fraudulent elections in the African country of Zimbabwe.

Next: The birth of birtherism