John F. Kennedy once said that "victory has a thousand fathers," and there may be a thousand reasons why Barack Obama won the race for president. But only a couple of the reasons really mattered: voter anger and the desire for change.
Anger created a winning playing field for Obama. Nationally, anywhere from 8 to 9 out of every 10 Americans felt that the country was headed in the wrong direction. The anger was a product of dissatisfaction with the economy, to a lesser extent the war in Iraq, and President Bush's failure to deal effectively with either problem. The fulsome nature of public opinion created an environment that led to the success of Obama and the defeat of John McCain.
Obama struck the right tone to deal with voter anger. His cool, calm, and collected demeanor during the three presidential debates reassured Americans that the country could solve its problems if everybody calmed down and worked together. The tone of McCain's debate performance, in contrast, was angry and belligerent, which only made voters more nervous than they already were.
Voter anger was the product of a weak economy. A week before the election, confidence in the economy was lower than it had been since 1967, when the Conference Board created the index. Concern about the economy drowned out debate over social issues, and, for that reason, many Reagan Democrats who lived in places like western Pennsylvania overlooked their discomfort with Obama's position on issues like abortion so they could vote their disdain for Republican economics.
According to the 2004 exit polls, there was as much concern about morality as there was about the economy. In the last presidential election, four fifths of the voters who were concerned about morality voted for President Bush while four fifths of the voters worried about the economy voted for Kerry. With economy easily trumping morality this year, voters had stacked the deck against McCain.
There is a lot of debate about whether or not Obama's race helped or hurt him, but voter anger and the desire for change created an environment that was conducive to a minority presidential candidate.
Political observer Charlie Cook noted a similarity between Obama's victory and the election of Bobby Jindal as governor in his home state of Louisiana in 2007. "The people of my home state elected a 36-year-old son of two Indian immigrants because after 100 years of bad public policy, the state was in desperate shape and they decided to take a chance on a real smart young guy who didn't look like them or anybody they knew or anybody they had ever voted for. They took a risk."
Change is the first cousin of anger, so it is not surprising that Americans want change when things are going really badly. But what is remarkable is Obama's discipline in sticking to the change message from the start to the end of the campaign.
Like many others, I have spent the past year and a half watching the Obama campaign very closely. I don't think I ever saw Obama on a podium without the word "change" in the background. It was "Stand up for change" in the primaries and "Change we need" in the fall. But it has always been "Change." Democrats in Denver said the word "change" more than any other word. Joe Biden used the word "change" 20 times in his vice presidential acceptance speech, and Obama said the "C" word 11 times in the last of his three debates with McCain.
Both of Obama's strongest competitors took similar tacks to counter the change message, but both failed.
First, each of them unsuccessfully tried to counter change with experience. Both candidates found out the hard way that voters valued change more than they did experience. When the senators from Arizona and New York said that "experience matters," what the voters heard them saying was that they were Washington insiders—the kiss of death in a fulsome political climate. McCain had the additional burden of defending the credentials of his inexperienced running mate, Sarah Palin.
Once McCain and Clinton learned the hard way that experience would not work, they turned to change themselves, only to find that Obama had already cornered the market on change. McCain made a special effort to grab the mantle of change by calling himself a maverick and a reformer and using every word in the thesaurus associated with change to little avail.