Obama’s Stroke of Luck

As we think back to What Went Wrong with Hillary Clinton’s campaign, it’s worth keeping in mind that whatever Barack Obama’s strengths as a candidate, however powerful his oratory, however tight his operation, he really lucked out this time.

Several factors outside of Obama’s control ended up working in his favor.

Michigan and Florida moved up their primaries. If these two states had counted, Clinton would likely have won both, giving her three of the first five contests. Momentum hasn’t been a major factor in this race, but two more big wins would have seriously dulled Obama’s mo’ going into Super Tuesday. They also would have cut into Obama’s pledged delegate lead, state lead, etc. Had the primary still dragged on into June, Clinton’s argument that she’s winning the popular vote—which now requires that you count Michigan, where Obama wasn’t on the ballot—would be a lot more compelling.

Proportional primaries. As Clinton loves to point out, she would be winning under the Republican winner-take-all primary rules. (Huckabee says the same thing about Democratic rules.) Sure, the candidates would have run different campaigns if the Democrats had a different system. But given that demographics equals destiny in this election, it’s hard to see Obama winning big states like California (where Clinton wooed Hispanics), New York (her adopted home state), and Pennsylvania (where those “working-class whites” proved loyal). Add in Florida, and she would been a lock.

The quirky calendar. Clinton’s fatal flaw, according to the first draft of history, was expecting to have the nomination wrapped by Feb. 5. Had there not been a rush of states to hold their primaries early, she wouldn’t have had the comforting yet illusory firewall of Super Tuesday. Likewise, Obama benefited hugely from the string of friendly states where Clinton chose not to compete. Not all of them were guaranteed wins (Wisconsin, for example), and he certainly outgamed Clinton. But the looong period between Feb. 5 and March 4 showered Obama a string of 11 victories that put Clinton on the defensive and generated the closest thing to momentum we’ve seen in this cycle.

Clinton ’s Iraq war vote. Candidates always try to heighten contrast with their opponents. But Obama was lucky that both Edwards and Clinton voted to authorize the Iraq war in 2002—and that Clinton refused to apologize for her vote. Once it became clear that McCain would be the GOP nominee, Obama’s opposition to the war started to look like a powerful weapon in the general.

Two words: John Edwards. Without Edwards, Iowa would not have been Iowa. Obama might still have won, but he never would have trounced Clinton the way he did, 38 percent to her 29 percent. That win catapulted him from long shot to long shot with a chance. Later, Edwards grilled Clinton for taking money from lobbyists in much harsher terms than Obama ever did. It’s impossible to say how Edwards voters would have swung in Iowa and South Carolina, but his presence indisputably drew attention away from Clinton.

None of this is to discount Obama’s extraordinary organization, fundraising apparatus, and political abilities. But it’s worth noting how circumstances helped make his nomination possible.

Bonus : Slate ‘s Jeff Greenfield argues that Clinton would have won in the bygone era of contested conventions.