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Todd Domke

The campaign's 10 biggest surprises...

By Todd Domke
November 1, 2008
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IT HAS BEEN an epic campaign.

Let's review the surprises - ranking them from least to most impact on the race.

10. The contest was often a gaffe-athon.

Barack Obama said that when small-town folks "get bitter, they cling to guns or religion. . ." Hillary Clinton remembered landing at the Bosnia airport under "sniper fire" - but news footage showed a friendly welcoming ceremony. When John McCain was asked if he'd support keeping troops in Iraq for 50 years, he said, "Make it a hundred . . . that would be fine with me," arguing that only their safety mattered. Mitt Romney (R-MA, R-UT, R-NH, R-CA) claimed that his father marched with Martin Luther King. Oh, he meant "figuratively."

9. The illegal immigration issue disappeared.

In the early primaries, this issue was dominant and white-hot. Remember when Clinton tried to straddle the debate question about New York Governor Elliot Spitzer proposing to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants? Once the contest became McCain vs. Obama, the issue faded - except for the campaign ads targeting Hispanic voters.

8. The Iraq war retreated as an issue.

Early, the war was crucial in launching Obama, defeating Clinton, and reviving McCain. Later, with Democrats not wanting to talk about the success of McCain's surge strategy, and with Republicans not wanting to talk about Bush's blunders, this issue also faded.

7. Comebacks made a comeback.

In the past, when a front-runner collapsed, the candidacy was doomed. But in the GOP contest, McCain went from walking dead to running ahead. His determination and reputation enabled him to surge when the Iraq surge strategy proved successful. Clinton also tapped into America's love of underdogs when she persevered against Obama, despite delegate counts indicating that her quest was futile. In the second half of the race, she won most of the primaries.

6. The old art of oratory seemed nouveau.

It's impossible to imagine Obama winning the nomination if he hadn't been an inspirational speaker. Many voters found him persuasive because, unlike old-style orators who fumed and shouted, Obama was dispassionate. His words were often hot, but he was cool, so he didn't seem too demagogic.

5. The Internet produced more voters, vigilance, and vitriol.

The Obama campaign raised vast money online and used the Web as an organizing tool. Voters increasingly used the Internet for fact-checking and sharing information. Some used it to share hoaxes, smears, and insults.

4. Young voters became a powerful force.

The participation rate of young voters had been steadily rising since 2000, but it soared in some Democratic primaries when Obama needed them to "rock the vote." It's still an open question whether they will turn out Tuesday in record numbers. Regardless, future campaigns will aggressively seek their involvement and support.

3. McCain had no general-election strategy.

His campaign fought tactically day to day, but failed to develop a coherent strategy and consistent message. Months ago, after securing the GOP nomination while Obama was still fighting Clinton, the McCain campaign had an opportunity to create and promote a reform platform. He could have emphasized positive solutions so, later, when he had to make the case against Obama, he wouldn't seem mean or desperate. Instead, he zigged, zagged, and lagged.

2. McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate.

This was a shocker. McCain was expected to select someone who could carry a swing state and seem presidential. Instead he picked someone who galvanized his base, but energized the opposition and didn't appeal to many undecided, independent voters. Palin has campaigned hard for McCain, but The American Spectator reports that former Mitt Romney staffers working for McCain-Palin "have been involved in spreading anti-Palin spin to reporters, seeking to diminish her standing after the election."

And Romney himself? "He said the only time he'd travel for us is if we assured him that national cameras would be there," said a McCain campaign aide.

1. The financial crisis froze McCain's assets.

When the Wall Street crisis triggered a global recession, McCain's slight lead in the polls turned into a big deficit. If McCain loses narrowly, it was the bad economy that beat him.

Now it's up to swing-state voters. We'll see if they have a surprise for the pollsters.

Todd Domke is a Boston-area Republican political analyst, public relations strategist, and author.

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