Well, now that the election’s over, we can look back and see where the key elements came together to make Barack Obama the 44th president of the United States. And it’s only with the blessing of hindsight that we can fully grasp the significance of certain events.
As I see it, Obama won the presidency because of two key decisions. The first one enabled him to win the primary, and the second clinched him the general election.
In both cases, Obama (or his team) looked very carefully at the rules of each contest and found the loopholes that they could best exploit to win.
I don’t mean that as a criticism. In contests like this, it is not only acceptable to look carefully at the rules and find the best way to play within them, but entirely appropriate to do so. Indeed, it is the people who find they have to re-define the terms of victory to best suit themselves halfway through the game that are the despicable ones.
In the primaries, the Obama campaign early on realized that victory was defined on a single term — collecting enough delegates in enough primaries to clinch the nomination. Number of votes and number of states were simply irrelevant. Obama made a point of abiding meticulously by the rules, especially in the case of the Florida and Michigan primaries, and left it for Hillary Clinton and her backers to whine about “18 million people voted for her” and to play their little games in those states. In the end, Clinton lost — and Obama won.
In the general election, the Obama camp seemed to figure out that the funding restrictions were entirely optional — and the likely Republican nominee had committed himself to abiding by them. A quick head-fake (also known as “a broken promise”) towards accepting public funding froze McCain to carefully predefined spending limits, while leaving Obama free to keep raising and spending money like a drunken Kennedy.
Those very same people also noted that when Congress passed its financial reporting and ethics reforms of the past few years, they had not included political campaigns. (Gee, Congress excluding itself from the same rules they impose on everyone else. THAT’S new and surprising…) That let the Obama campaign raise literally hundreds of millions of dollars that, under any other circumstances, would have likely resulted in criminal investigations and indictments.
Again, this is not sour grapes. I’m troubled by the rampant fraud and abuse in the Obama fundraising, especially through online donations via credit cards, but the simple fact is that they obeyed the rules.
There is some pretty strong evidence that they did enable a lot of lawbreaking, but it seems that they didn’t break any laws themselves. And considering that victory ensures forgiveness of a multitude of sins (and the Justice Department, either facing an incoming Obama administration or under one, won’t be likely to look too closely at the matter), it ends up mattering not a whit.
In the end, the Obama campaign played by the rules — after putting them under a microscope and finding the key exceptions, conditions, and loopholes that they needed to guarantee a win. In the end, they simply played the game better than any of their rivals because they knew the game better than their rivals.
And in the end, that was enough to win.