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Is Obama’s Iowa Surge for Real?

5 minute read
Amy Sullivan

The new message driving Barack Obama’s resurgent campaign these days is “electability plus.” He debuted the new appeal at the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner earlier this month, calling for a “party that doesn’t just focus on how to win but why we should.” Obama referred to what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now” and argued that the U.S. faces too many challenges at home and abroad for Democrats to be satisfied with merely taking the White House away from Republicans.

Electability plus means not just getting elected but getting elected for the right reasons. It is a rebuttal of the argument that Hillary Clinton should win the Democratic nomination simply because of her perceived advantage against GOP rivals. And it provides a rationale for why Obama is running now, why he didn’t wait four or eight years to launch a presidential campaign.

It’s significant then that Obama’s message seems to be catching on among the notoriously pragmatic Iowans. By 55% to 33%, Iowans–who will take part in a Jan. 3 caucus that will be the first test for Democratic presidential candidates–said they favored “new direction and new ideas” over “strength and experience,” a new Washington Post/ABC poll found. In July the ratio was 49% to 39%. After trailing Clinton in the state most of the year, Obama now leads by 4 points, and he has eliminated her advantage among women voters and older voters. He is also dead even with her when voters are asked whom they trust more to handle the economy, Social Security and the war in Iraq.

To run on electability plus, of course, you first have to pass the electability threshold. There, too, Obama has fresh data on his side. His aides tout the fact that their candidate boasts higher favorability ratings among independents and Republicans than either of his main rivals. (A recent Pew survey found that 21% of Republican respondents would like to see Obama as the Democratic nominee.) And the Post poll suggests that Obama could benefit from last-minute shifts in support: 34% of Iowa voters said he was their second choice, compared with only 15% for Clinton. Under the arcane rules of Iowa caucuses, that means Obama is more likely to pick up voters who can switch their support if their candidate falls short of the required 15% bar for votes.

Winning in Iowa, however, still comes down to the fine art of connecting with individual voters. And on that front, the state isn’t always a good match for Obama’s strengths. The graveyards of political campaigns are littered with candidates who excel at forging connections with individual voters but who can’t give a big speech to save their lives. Obama may be that rare politician with the opposite problem. Before a crowd of 4,000, he can be magnetic and compelling. But before a crowd of several hundred, he can sometimes fall flat.

On a Sunday evening a week after delivering the best speech of his campaign before thousands of roaring supporters at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, the Illinois Senator is easily distracted, interrupting himself to get a bottle of water for a man with a cough. A few minutes later, he stops in the middle of a riff to pick up an earring dropped by a woman in the front row. And Obama’s energy level fluctuates. “He hits the wall in late afternoon before really firing back up,” explains Iowa press secretary Tommy Vietor, making a sine curve with his hand. For long stretches, audience members are sitting back with arms crossed, waiting to be impressed. When he finishes, the crowd stands, yet there are few cheers.

But then a 64-year-old woman named Jane Svoboda stands up to challenge him. She wants to know why Obama doesn’t talk more about terrorism –“the people who keep attacking us,” as she puts it–and illegal immigrants. Obama discusses the need to regain global respect for the U.S. and argues that President George W. Bush erred by focusing on Iraq instead of Afghanistan. Svoboda interrupts to disagree, and that gets Obama going. “Iraq did not launch 9/11,” he says, growing more and more animated. “That is part of the misinformation that has been coming out of this Administration.”

The two get into a back-and-forth, which finally wakes up the crowd. By the time Obama moves on to immigration (“These are people who are trying to make a living. I understand they broke the law. But let me tell you something: if the minimum wage in Canada was $100 an hour …”), he is, to steal a phrase, fired up. And the crowd, which cheers so loudly that he doesn’t need to finish the sentence, is won over. The passionate response has answered their electability questions. As for the plus? On her way out of the event, even Svoboda offers a positive verdict: “He did a good job.”

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