The Next 20

How Barack Obama Became the Candidate of Change

The speech that turned Iowa—and the 2008 election—around for Barack Obama.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Yana Paskova/Getty Images and Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

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The 2008 battle in Iowa for the Democratic caucus was perhaps the most titanic single nominating contest in the history of modern politics. Well, maybe the past 20 years anyway, while Slate has been covering politics.


The stakes were high. It was the first election in a half-century without an incumbent president or vice president competing. There was a very good chance the Democratic Party would be the first to nominate either a black man or a woman. History was almost certain to be made.

Before history, there was combat between three strong top-tier candidates. Hillary Clinton had the money, the name, and the establishment support. John Edwards had lived in the state since his turn as John Kerry’s running mate. Barack Obama’s convention speech in 2004 had made him a political star, and he arrived in Iowa to crowds unseen in caucus history.

It was a bruising neck-and-neck contest between all three. In the end Obama won, stealing the change message from John Edwards and beating back Hillary Clinton’s focus on experience. And the race turned on a remarkable speech Obama gave on the night of Nov. 10, 2007, in Des Moines. Claims of a decisive “turning point” in any election are often overblown—more often such a moment merely crystallizes a change that’s been days or weeks in the making. But you can make a real case that Obama’s Jefferson-Jackson Day speech is a pivot point in America history. In this special Next 20 episode of Whistlestop, I tell the story of that speech, the Iowa campaign, and the 2008 battle between Obama and Clinton—the aftereffects of which we’re seeing even in the election of 2016.

Podcast production and edit by Jocelyn Frank.
Research by Brian Rosenwald.

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