After Barack Obama secured the Democratic nomination for President, his campaign immediately segued into the general election. Before we’re totally submerged by Obama-McCain comparisons, it’s informative to consider turning points in Obama’s brilliant campaign: three critical endorsements.
Two came near the beginning. The first was by Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill. On January 12th, McCaskill endorsed her fellow first-term Senator, saying she did so at the urging of her eighteen-year-old daughter. McCaskill was the first female Democratic Senator to endorse Obama, as most of her Senate sisters – Mikulski, Feinstein, Stabenow, et al. – were strong Clinton supporters. Thereafter, McCaskill served as a bridge from the Obama campaign to the feminist Democratic establishment.
McCaskill played a key role in Obama’s narrow victory in the February 5th Missouri primary, where he won by ten thousand votes. There were 23 contests that day: Clinton won the biggest states including California and New York, but Obama won the majority, thirteen. While some of his red state victories, such as Alaska, were easily dismissed, skeptics had to take notice of how well he ran in the important swing state of Missouri. The win bolstered Obama’s argument that his candidacy had broad appeal.
Senator McCaskill’s endorsement came at the same time as that of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. In retrospect the full-fledged support of these two women punched a sizeable hole in Clinton’s mantle of invincibility: they sent a signal that not all powerful Democratic women were behind her candidacy and some believed the less-well-known Obama would be a better President.
The second key endorsement was by Massachusetts Senator Edward (“Teddy”) Kennedy. On January 28th, Kennedy, his son, Representative Patrick Kennedy, and his niece, Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter, ended their declared neutrality in the race for the Democratic nomination. Teddy Kennedy’s support put the imprimatur of the Kennedy family on Obama. Coupled with his victory in South Carolina on January 26th, the endorsement convinced African-Americans that Obama was a legitimate national candidate, someone who had a good chance to garner the Democratic nomination. Thereafter, he got a commanding percentage of the African-American vote in every primary.
The Kennedy stamp of approval sent a strong message to the Democratic establishment that the Kennedy wing of the Party believed Obama best represented the liberal tradition of John and Bobby Kennedy. This was another blow to the Clinton campaign’s contention that she was the consensus candidate. Thereafter, Obama consistently garnered the support of both liberal Democrats and those who are highly educated.
Teddy Kennedy is well respected by his Senate peers. His endorsement ensured that Obama would garner many other Senatorial endorsements: he ended up with more than Clinton.
The third critical endorsement came near the end of the campaign. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the female member of the power triumvirate – Howard Dean, Harry Reid, and Pelosi – running the Democratic Party, stayed in the background for most of the contest, although her closest California Congressional pals, Representatives Anna Eshoo and George Miller were early Obama supporters. However, Pelosi was the most prominent advocate of two procedural positions that ultimately worked to the detriment of the Clinton campaign. One was her steadfast insistence that Democratic candidates play by the rules – dictates that they had agreed to at the beginning of the competition – in order to win the Democratic nomination. The Party rules decreed that the ultimate winner would be the candidate who emerged with the most delegates.