There is a reason that insurgent campaigns like Barack Obama's (or Gary Hart's in 1984, or Bill Bradley's in 2000) almost always fall short running against establishment or experienced candidates. It's simply that there are so many different things to do in a political campaign, so many mistakes that can be made, and so many things that are just too hard, too established to change. Running on unsustainable gusts of adrenaline and enthusiasm, insurgents make dozens of mistakes, their opponents exploit them ruthlessly, and if they survive, they hit roadblocks: superdelegates, small-caucus states, or blocs of voters, such as African Americans and older voters, who simply have no reason to break with the establishment candidate.
That's why the most significant thing about Tuesday's results was Sen. Obama's running the table in the six caucus states—by an average of about 40 percent—and the smaller primaries. One can over analyze the demographics of those results—mostly white, Mountain and Plains states—and in so doing overlook the simple fact that either candidate could win such states; it just takes hard work. And it's much more of an uphill effort for an insurgent candidate than for an establishment candidate to claim such small victories. Insurgent campaigns typically roll the dice, hoping that buzz-driven wins in big quirky primaries like California or New Hampshire might offset all the margins in ordinary little states like Delaware and North Dakota. But they never do. Perhaps that's what Obama meant last night when he said, "Make this time different from all the rest."
So far, Obama has won Iowa, through pure organization—not just organizing the state better than it's ever been organized before but organizing it differently. He won South Carolina in more or less the same way, ignoring the old rules about paying off prominent African American politicians, and building on the skeletal infrastructure of community organizing in the state. Those alone are two transformative victories, in the sense that presidential—and progressive—politics in those states will never be the same. Now he's won last night's caucus states, along with several smaller primaries that require grassroots organizing, and some bigger ones, like Missouri. For a candidacy that's supposed to be all flash and rhetoric, as opposed to the real workhorse, those are remarkable achievements even if the campaign fizzles tomorrow.
Every election night, win or lose, one gets a sense from the Obama campaign of the methodical vote-by-vote construction of a new winning coalition. Sure, some of the basic demographics of his campaign remain: He does better among better-educated voters, among younger voters, among whites in Northern states, and less well among Latinos, older voters, and other constituencies of the Democratic base. But that's normal—an insurgent candidate always starts with better-educated and younger voters, because they're the ones likely to be looking for an alternative. It's a picture in motion. Obama first peeled off the African American vote, which, despite his race, is not insignificant—no one's ever done it before, and there was no reason to think that working-class African Americans would see the biracial son of a Kenyan grad student as having much in common with their experience. He started to peel off union members. On Tuesday, the results were mixed and complicated by the distinctive demographics of each state, but he started to reach further up in age—in a number of states, Clinton's advantage didn't begin until reaching voters over 50.
The methodical, additive construction of the Obama coalition might fall short, in the end. The trend line of the insurgency might never quite cross that of the Democratic base. Certainly the historical odds are against it. But he's hit all his reasonable targets so far. And he's working it like someone who understands what it is to win elections and govern—there's no magical moment when everyone sees your brilliance and votes for you.
Of the hundred or so pieces of hard work that go into such a campaign, the Obama campaign has stumbled only a few times—at least with consequences visible to an outside observer. They probably could have done better yesterday if they had a better strategy to pick off subgroups of Latino voters. And they have not done as well as they could have on a couple issues of domestic policy, particularly the health plan. I don't get worked up about that, since I think his plan is defensible and the details of a health plan proposed in a campaign are entirely irrelevant to what the president will do, but it's left a single vulnerability that Sen. Clinton will claw at until it seems like a profound difference of philosophy. Clinton's call for a debate every week (not a request usually made by a confident front-runner) signals an intent to magnify this single failing to cosmic significance, as it already is for Paul Krugman, Ezra Klein, and a few others we know and love. (The war for the influential policy intellectuals has been a surprising sideshow of the campaign – I have no doubt that Krugman's antipathy made at least a percentage point of difference in the tri-state area.)
Obama faces a tough choice: He can make the most of the difference, attempting to treat the absence of a mandate in his health plan as a virtue, or he can ramp the conflict down, as he had done earlier, focusing entirely on the shared goal of universal coverage, his openness to other ideas and experimentation to achieve that goal, and perhaps praising Sen. Ron Wyden, whose Healthy Americans Act, with its six Republican cosponsors, embodies the kind of bargaining that Obama promises. I very much hope his campaign chooses the latter path. He didn't choose the fight, and it is the Clinton campaign that is treating the individual mandate as if it were the silver bullet for universal health care, which it surely is not, but he nonetheless has little more to gain from amplifying the fight. It's the one and only thing Clinton has to show Obama as unprepared, conservative, or cautious. And if he really wants to "make this time different," he should be unafraid of charges that he changed his mind.
Clinton, for her part, is back to the solid, on-message candidate of the earlier campaign. The soap-opera quality of the post-Iowa period is gone, and gone too is the would-be co-president. Apart from any particular things Bill Clinton said, allowing her campaign to be about "The Clintons," rather than about the distinctive and different achievements of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, is surely the biggest mistake made by any candidate in this cycle. Unfortunately, on her own, she generates neither excitement nor antipathy, and her speech tonight was the kind of thing that makes the speechwriter in me cringe in sympathy with hers—she read out every word as if she might as well have been reading Mitt Romney's speech, it had so little connection to her.
I started this piece thinking I would write at least as much about the Republican race as the Democratic, since the story there is, if anything, much bigger—the resilience of Mike Huckabee, the reluctance to embrace Sen. McCain among Southerners. But, really, it's the story I've been predicting since last year, when their front-runners were named Frist, Santorum and Allen: They don't have a candidate. As one of the many who thought McCain was finished, I've had to rethink my political prognostication skills, but McCain didn't return because of real enthusiasm for him—he returned by default. It's notable that McCain couldn't break 50 percent in his own state, in a Republican primary. That may force the Republicans to pair him with a running mate—and they are all dropping hints to Huckabee supporters that it might be their man—who will excite the base at the same time that he completely alienates all those voters who believe that the earth is more than 5,000 years old.
The Republican race has also had important interactions with the Democratic one. For the week and a half since the Republican South Carolina primary, it had become an implicit race against John McCain, and as a result, for the only time all year, there's been a sense that Republicans could win. While to my ears, Obama makes a strong logical case that he would be the stronger match-up with McCain—he presents a sharp and favorable contrast in both age and ideology, and would not automatically lose the entire Mountain West, as Clinton would—superficially, the reaction to thinking about McCain as the opponent would be to turn to Ms. Ready-On-Day-One. With the Republican race back in turmoil, and a sense that they won't give the nomination to McCain without significant concessions to the social conservatives, Democrats will likely regain some of the confidence that would allow them to take a chance on a potentially transformative president.
And so, we have two races moving in very different directions: One is additive, as Obama builds a new coalition step by step and Clinton tries to bolster and add to the traditional Democratic base (for example, she added support among Asian Americans in California to overcome the fact that Obama won both whites and blacks), which together lead to an expanding and ambitious party; the other subtractive, as it loses faith in one putative front-runner after another, shrinking in enthusiasm and confidence, along with votes.