Compelling as that vision was, Axelrod erred in underestimating the degree to which Obama’s lack of experience would prey on the minds of voters. For months, various high-level supporters beseeched the campaign to come up with a better answer to the charge that he was unprepared for the presidency. “What Barack said for months is, basically, ‘It’s not experience that matters, it’s judgment,’ ” one close friend of his tells me. “But that was a terrible answer: Voters have a right to expect both experience and judgment.”
In late November, the campaign finally got the message—and was blessed by the discovery of a quote that would aid it immeasurably. Now, all over Iowa, Obama told audiences that “experience is important, but there is the wrong kind of experience and the right kind of experience. My experience is working in the real lives of real people, and I will bring real results if we have the courage to bring about change. I’ll have to admit that these are not my words, but Bill Clinton’s words when he was running for president in 1992. Bill Clinton was right then, and Barack Obama is right now.”
After winning his stunning victory in Iowa, Obama sailed into New Hampshire with the winds of history and destiny apparently gusting at his back. For the next few days, he looked like more than a mere candidate. He looked like the leader of a movement. The soaring oratory. The thousands-strong crowds. Even the most hard-bitten reporters were agog at what was unfolding before their eyes.
Much has been made of how the press and pollsters missed the signs of Clinton’s rebound in New Hampshire. We misread the impact of her brimming tear ducts, of her debate performance, of all those questions that she took. And, no doubt, Clinton dug deep in the Granite State, calling up reserves of humanity and resilience that we (and perhaps she) had forgotten that she had in her. But equally influential on the outcome of the primary were the god-awful mistakes committed by Obama and his team.
Back in Iowa, Obama’s speeches, though always long on inspiration, had also eviscerated Clinton: the riffs on how “the same old Washington textbook campaigns [and] triangulating and poll-driven positions ... just won’t do.” But in New Hampshire, Obama dropped the contrasts. He added not a jot of substance, not a shred of an economic message in a state where that issue is always paramount. He refrained from engaging in back-and-forth with either voters or the press. His permafrosty condescension toward his rival—“You’re likable enough, Hillary”—suggested at once cocksureness and complacency. And Axelrod’s postdebate spin that “you do better playing to people’s hopes than preying on their fears” captured the true-believerism that gripped the campaign’s upper echelon. The Obama movement was now unstoppable; all they had to do was stall out the clock and watch as Hillary melted down.
If Obama fails to win the nomination, history will look back on this as the moment when he let it slip away, missing his best (and maybe last) opportunity to behead the queen. As Axelrod’s team headed west, they were dazed but determined to adapt to the new reality. With Hillary having trounced Obama among economy-minded voters in New Hampshire, their plan was to home in laserlike on kitchen-table issues in Nevada. But then a race-bomb was lobbed into their laps—and blew that plan to pieces.
The Carson City Community Center was bulging at the seams when Obama showed up for a town-hall meeting the Monday night before the Nevada caucuses. During the Q&A afterward, a grandmother took the mike and coughed up a query that was unusually blunt. “Let’s get down to brass tacks here,” the lady said. “We’ve never elected a black man in this country before.”
“That’s a good point!” Obama cracked. “I’ve noticed that!”
“I have, too. How can you address that issue?”
Obama’s answer was pitch-perfect. “I don’t want to sound naïve. Will there be some folks who probably don’t vote for me because I’m black? Of course. Just like there would be some of you who wouldn’t vote for Hillary because she’s a woman and some who wouldn’t vote for John Edwards because they don’t like his accent.”
As a matter of strategy as well as principle, Obama had been at pains to downplay race as a factor in his candidacy. But with his loss in New Hampshire, issues of black and white inserted themselves at the center of the fray. First came the question of whether the variance between the preprimary polls and the outcome meant some white voters had lied to pollsters, though scant evidence exists to buttress that theory. Then there were Clinton’s comments that seemed to privilege LBJ over Martin Luther King Jr. in the advancement of civil rights—comments that, however innocently intended, were taken as blasphemy by many blacks. Most incendiary, though, were the remarks by BET’s Johnson, who not only hinted elliptically at Obama’s dabblings with cocaine as a kid but also likened him to Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.