As an Obama supporter, I am of course disappointed with the results, but that is not to say that there wasn’t anything valuable that could be gained from this electoral defeat.
The first thing to gain is the wisdom that comes with a loss. I may have participated in the Iowa race, but I have never been to New Hampshire in my life, so I don’t think I have any sort of special insight into mistakes made by the Obama campaign or Obama supporters and leaners other than what was in the national media, so I will talk about one big area where I think Obama may have suffered some weakness despite media spin to the contrary: the debate.
Part of how the debate went were beyond Senator Obama’s control so obviously not all of this is improvement material for him, but some is. When I watched the debate, I did not feel that he did a good job. He made all his points reasonably well and though I am partisan here, I think that his arguments were more accurate than Senator Clinton’s.
However, he did allow her to paint him as inexperienced. She made a “look at our records” statement, which I felt that he should have countered with a “yes, take a look at our records” counter to say that “hey, Senator Clinton might have a record you like, but I’m certainly no slouch.” Instead, he let that slide, which painted him more as a John Edwards-type candidate, and that is one without a strong record…an image that Edwards, ironically, did a better job of repelling during the debate than Obama. Obama really does have a strong record from his time in the Illinois State Senate and compared to Senator Clinton, his U.S. Senate record isn’t shabby either (in fact, it’s arguably much better considering that he spent less time there).
Another problem was that he missed some of the cues for likeability that he has normally done well on. He was likely very tired but of course, the frequently cited media example was the “You’re likeable enough” statement, which looked grudging on camera. I don’t think voters are so stupid that that makes or breaks their vote consciously, but it does contribute. Of course, this was in contrast to the response that Clinton got to give to the softball question that triggered it.
Finally, back to the experience vs. change issue, as the media likes to frame it, I thought he handled it poorly. Unlike what seemed to be every pundit that I heard (I’ve been hearing more pundits within a few weeks than I’ve normally heard in a year, which is an unfortunate trend), I was not surprised to see Edwards side with Obama, as Edwards’ message is pretty incompatible with Clinton’s. But I was disappointed to see that Obama went along with it as if it were a welcome development. What Obama did not need to do was associate himself with Edwards’ all talk, no action style and by associating with Edwards, he came of sounding like that too.
There is truth to his admonition not to discount the power of words but he should have qualified it with a comment that it does take hard work as he has done in the past. That would have helped to silence the Clinton argument that she’s the only one who means business. Obama for all his “inspiration” is actually quite pragmatic and has achieved quite a bit as an elected official. Letting Clinton run with that argument was almost criminal.
Other than the poor debate performance, I don’t know what to make of the race. Whether it was a stronger emergence of identity politics, lying among poll takers, a sexist media slant conjuring a sympathy vote, independents rushing to the Republican race satisfied that Obama would definitely win or some combination of those factors and more, I don’t know. But I do know that there is likely a lot for the campaign to learn from this.
To soften the blow of this, many Obama supporters have pointed out that in actuality, this doesn’t matter much because the pledged delegate count from New Hampshire is a tie between Obama and Clinton with 9 a piece. And some further point out that because of endorsements from New Hampshire superdelagates, Obama actually leads Clinton in that delegation 12 delgates to 11.
Obviously this misses the point. New Hampshire is not at all about delegates, since it doesn’t have many. The real effect of New Hampshire is the media coverage that follows and the tone it sets on the race, one that is not good for Obama.
However, I will argue that this can be held up in the future as a model of what complacency does, whether or not complacency played a major role here. Next time that people say “well, I like Obama, but I don’t feel like voting”, the Obama campaign can hold up New Hampshire and say, “Well, then Clinton will win.”
Certainly we don’t want that to happen.