Obama closing the gap, reinventing politics along the way

Looking at various polls the other day I speculated that the Democratic race could end up even on Super Tuesday. The new Gallup track now has the race 44% Clinton, Obama 41%. On Jan 20th it was 48% Clinton, 28% Obama. The most interesting stat in the report is that more Edwards voting are breaking to Obama than Clinton. If these numbers are true what is most important to note is that movement is two way - Clinton is dropping while Obama is rising.

We will never know exactly what happened in these last few weeks to change the race so dramatically. It was some combination of the angry Clinton tactics, Obama's huge South Carolina win, the Camelot endorsement, the powerful set of other endorsements (well used by the Obama campaign) and a modification of the Obama strategy itself. And something else not well understood - the power of millions of people fighting hard, in new and unprecedented ways with new dynamic new tools - to make the case for their cause.

Perhaps Hillary's very strong debate performance on Thursday will blunt some of this momentum. But for now it sure looks like we head into Super Tuesday dead even. Let's look a little deeper at why:

The Power of Camelot - The Camelot endorsement has been particularly powerful. It gave the Obama a way to mount a frontal assault on the very effective 3 part Clinton strategy of women, Hispanics and tradional Democrats. The Kennedy name of course plays very well with traditional Democrats. The name has great resonance in the older Hispanic community, where Clinton was doing particularly well. And for younger Hispanics, particularly the immigrants, Kennedy's strong championing of their case is well known. And women. Caroline Kennedy's ads, speech and just overall incredible presence simply has to be having an impact (a new Gallup report suggests Obama has moved a great deal with women in recent weeks). Remember that Obama doesn't need to win these groups, but he may now be able to successfully cut Clinton's margin in each category, something that could fundamentally alter the dynamic of the race. (For more on the battle for Hispanics click here.)

Hispanics, the Economy - There is also now mounting evidence that the Obama campaign is in the process of correcting two of their greatest strategic failings in the last few weeks - their lack of emphasis on Hispanics and the economy. On top of the Kennedy endorsement, Obama is traveling throughout heavy Hispanic regions now; did an excellent job making the case for immigration reform in Thursday's debate; has been better using his high profile Hispanic surrogates and has upped his Spanish language buy throughout the region. Whether it is enough to carve into Hillary's enormous margin with Hispanics - so critical in California - we will find out on Tuesday. But it is now clear Obama and his campaign are at least trying much harder to reach Hispanics than even just a few weeks ago.

I've been writing since Iowa that the Obama campaign's lack of emphasis on the middle class struggle was not easy to understand. I think it was the major reason they lost New Hampshire and allowed Clinton back into the race. Over the last few days you can see the Obama mesage evolving, becoming more about the core struggle of every day people, and with a much greater emphasis in his campaign now. In New Mexico yesterday he offered this new speech on the economy, one that is clearly an evolution from previous formulations.

A Virtuous Cycle of Participation - Finally, Obama has one very powerful advantage in these final days that is hard to see and evaluate - the power of his virtual community across the country. We saw the power of this community with the truly extraordinary amount of money it raised for him in January. But equally important in these final days will be the virtual door knocking these millions of people will be doing - emails to their address books, actions on MySpace, Facebook and other social networking sites, text messages sent to friends, viral videos linked too, and comments left on blogs, newspapers and call in radio shows. It is no exaggeration to say that this million or so impassioned Obama supporters will reach tens of millions of voters in highly personal ways in the next few days, providing a messaging and personal validation of Obama that may be equal in weight to the final round of TV ads, free media and traditional grassroots methods.

All the way back in 2003, I wrote an essay about this new era of participation in politics that argued the new Dean campaign model was changing the way we had to imagine what a Presidential campaign was all about. In the 20th century, a Presidential campaign was about 30 second spots, tarmac hits and 200 kids in a headquarters. In the 21st century, the race for the Presidency would be about ten million people going to work each day, wired into the campaign through the campaign's site, through email, sms, social networking sites etc acting as full partners in the fight not just passive couch potatoes to be persuaded.

This is a very different model of politics. One begun by Dean but being taken to a whole other level by Obama. It puts people and their passion for a better nation at the core of politics. When used correctly, it creates a virtuous cycle of participation, where more and more people engage, take an action and bring others in, creating a self-perpetuating and dynamic network of support. It is also why the endorsements of entities with large, active virtual communities - Kerry.org, MoveOn - is so meaningful for Obama. He has created an on-line ecosystem that can quickly take advantage of the support of the millions of people now doing politics in this new 21st century way and exponentially grow his dynamic community of change.

The Democratic Party is one entire Presidential cycle ahead of the Republicans in adopting this new model, and I will argue it is simply not possible for the Republican nominee to catch up this year. Too much experimentation, too much trial and error goes into inventing this new model for it to be easily and quickly adapted. It has to be invented, not adapted. I'm sure the GOP will catch up over time, but this year year the only GOP candidate who has taken this new model seriously has been Ron Paul - and they have paid the price. Obama raised almost as much money in January of this year as John McCain raised in all of 2007. Democrats are raising much more money across the board, seeing historic levels of voter turnout, increased Party registrations and millions more working along side with the campaigns - all of which is creating an extraordinary virtuous cycle of participation that continues to grow the number getting engaged in politics as never before. While there can be little doubt that anger towards Bush and disapointment with his government is a driving force behind this, the key takeaway is that the adoption of this new politics by Democrats allowed the Party to take advantage of this tidal wave in unprecedented ways, and will be one of the Democratic Party's most significant advantages going into the fall elections.

Much attention has been given to the money raised by this Obama network. Much more needs to be given to the power of it to deliver message, provide personal validation to friends, neighbors, colleagues and peers in ways so powerful, and ways never seen before in American history. I have no doubt that it has been the campaign's ability to foster and channel the passion of his supporters - creating a vrituous cycle of particpation - into an unprecedented national network - helping amplify and reinforce the power of Obama's argument - that is playing a critical role in Obama's closing the gap with Clinton in these final exciting and dramatic days before Super Tuesday.

Update: Not only did Obama receive the endorsement of the LA Times today, read by many Latinos in Southern California, he was endorsed enthusiastically by the largest Spanish language daily paper in the nation, the LA based L'Opinion. While the paper praised both Clinton and Obama, they singled out Obama's steadfast support for driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants - in contrast to Clinton's waffle on it this fall - as a major reason for the endorsement. How much impact these two endorsements will have in the coming days, and whether they will help him cut into her large lead with Hispanics could determine the outcome of the California primary - as the Rasmussen track has Obama now leading among white voters in the Golden State.

The Obama campaign continues to do things that one would have believed impossible a month ago. Receiving the endorsements of Camelot; of Oprah; of John Kerry and Bill Bradley; of Kathleen Sebelius the day after her giving the State of the Union response; the $32 million raised; the winning of the Iowa Caucus; and now, what I simply would not have believed possible, the endorsement of L'Opinion. Whether he wins or loses, Barack Obama has mounted a truly incredible campaign.