After the primary, the Chicago Tribune editorialized that Illinoisans were in for the ‘‘Senate race of a generation,’’ promising an ‘‘uncommon gift waged by uncommon candidates.’’ The description of the contest as ‘‘uncommon’’ turned out to be an understatement, with ‘‘bizarre’’ or ‘‘wacky’’ better characterizing it in the end. As for the ‘‘gift’’ part, it ended up being something of a white elephant, with Obama facing flawed, and, at times, no opponents, rendering the outcome a foregone conclusion and lowering the level of issue debate.
After the March primary, promising Republican primary victor Jack Ryan proved somewhat unready for a high-profile statewide campaign.
Then, after material in his previously sealed divorce records came to light, he withdrew from the race entirely. His exit threw the Illinois Republican Party into an increasingly frantic process to choose a successor that combined elements of comic opera and contemporary TV dating shows. Potential candidates entered and exited the stage almost too quickly for the voting audience to keep track of them. After being rejected a number of times, by more desirable candidates, a desperate Republican Party finally courted conservative African American media personality Alan Keyes. After a largely self-destructive campaign, Keyes endured a record-setting loss to Obama in November.
This chapter looks at the unusual general election campaign leading to Obama’s victory. It examines the campaign during its three stages: Obama v. Jack Ryan, Obama v. no one, and Obama v. Alan Keyes. We conclude by examining the results of the race and the factors that led to Obama’s win.
OBAMA V. JACK RYAN
The Republican primary field featured eight candidates, including wealthy businessmen James Oberweis and Andrew McKenna, State Senator Steve Rauschenberger, and retired Air Force General John Borling.
All except Borling ran on conservative platforms. The winner, Jack Ryan, grew up as one of six children in the wealthy Chicago suburb of Wilmette. He attended Dartmouth, where he played football, and then received his law degree and an MBA from Harvard. After pursuing a highly lucrative career in investment banking, in 2000 he became a teacher at Hales Franciscan, a predominantly black Catholic school on Chicago’s South Side. He won the primary with 35 percent of the vote, leading Oberweis with 24 percent, Rauschenberger with 20 percent, and McKenna with 15 percent. Although his victory was not as large as Obama’s, he did better than his opponents in terms of statewide appeal, winning 83 of the state’s 102 counties, including all but two with populations over 100,000 (Kane and St. Clair). His decision to air TV ads before any of the other Republican candidates helped ensure his victory.
His win in the Republican primary drew national media attention to the Illinois senate race as a contest of ‘‘two, young, charismatic Harvard graduates.’’ Given Ryan’s background as an inner-city teacher, his general election strategy emphasized reaching out to minority voters and social moderates. Shortly after the primary, Ryan said, ‘‘I spent a lot of time in the Republican primary speaking at churches on the south side of Chicago or south Peoria or communities that the Democrats think are theirs. Our basic premise is that whether you are a Democrat or Republican, rich or poor, we have ideas and plans that make America better for everybody.’’
In contrast to the primary, where issue differences between the candidates were miniscule, Jack Ryan offered a clear ideological contrast to Obama. His campaign emphasized free market economic approaches, including low taxes, deregulation, and school vouchers, as well as support for President Bush’s policies in Iraq. He also tried to attack Obama’s voting record as a state senator to paint him as too liberal for Illinois. For example, he criticized Obama’s sponsorship of the Bernadin amendment, which would have guaranteed universal affordable heath insurance in the state. Citing an estimated cost of $4 billion to accomplish this goal, Ryan tried to link Obama to the failed Clinton healthcare plan of the early 1990s and charged that his views on the issue were ‘‘outside the mainstream.’’ Ryan also attacked Obama’s senate voting record as ‘‘anti–gun owner.’’
His campaign created a ‘‘Barack Obama Truth Squad’’ to issue e-mail press releases to ‘‘correct’’ any Obama misstatements. His attacks sometimes overreached, however, and he struggled to find his footing as a candidate. For instance, as part of efforts to paint Obama as a tax-and-spend Democrat, Ryan charged that he had supported tax and fee increases 428 times as a state senator. It turned out, however, that these alleged ‘‘tax hikes’’ were all part of only two bills, one of which was the Fiscal Year 2004 state budget, which Obama had in fact voted against, reducing his ‘‘support’’ for tax increases by 280. In another attempt to tie Obama to bloated government, Ryan falsely claimed that the state government employed more people than manufacturers did in Illinois, citing a figure of 846,000, compared to an actual count of around 112,000. Media outlets were quick to correct Ryan’s errors, which made him look somewhat unprofessional as a campaigner.
The Ryan campaign also ignited controversy in May with its decision to assign an aide, Justin Warfel, to follow Obama around and film everything he did. Supposedly designed to ensure that Obama’s message was consistent throughout the state, the move engendered criticism when Warfel followed Obama into restrooms and recorded personal telephone conversations with his wife and daughters. Newspaper editorials condemned Ryan’s stunt, and prominent members of his own party also chastised him. For example, Peoria Republican Congressman Ray LaHood called the move ‘‘about the stupidest thing I’ve seen in a high-profile campaign.’’ After ten days, Ryan ordered Warfel to back off, but the ploy only diminished his stature and enhanced Obama’s.
Allegations about Jack Ryan’s divorce began to appear in the primary, as the one-time campaign manager of opponent John Borling claimed to know sordid details about Ryan’s 1999 split from actress Jeri Ryan. On the day after the primary, Republican State Party Chair Judy Baar Topinka claimed that Ryan’s victory meant that voters found the issue irrelevant. Rumors swirled until June 21 when, in response to a lawsuit by the Chicago Tribune and a Chicago TV station, a California judge unsealed the Ryans’ divorce records. They revealed that Jack Ryan had taken his ex-wife to sex clubs in New York, New Orleans, and Paris, complete in one instance with cages and whips, and asked her to perform sex publicly. When she became upset, the records revealed, Ryan complained that it was not a ‘‘turn on’’ for her to cry.
Initially Ryan denied most of the allegations, admitting only that the couple had visited one ‘‘avant-garde’’ Paris nightclub that made both him and Jeri Ryan uncomfortable. By the scandal’s second day, Ryan had shifted his message somewhat, arguing that he had not broken the law or the Ten Commandments. Although Ryan vowed to stay in the race, leading Republicans gradually turned against him. Party Chair Topinka and former governor Jim Edgar expressed anger that Ryan had not been forthcoming with them when he claimed, before the March primary, that there would be nothing embarrassing in the divorce files. A member of the Republican National Committee expressed a sense of betrayal that Ryan implied there was nothing detrimental in the records. ‘‘I don’t think he was protecting his son; I think he was protecting his political aspirations.’’
By the end of the week, many other Republican officials had turned against him. Although some State Central Committee members continued to support him, others described the situation in terms ranging from ‘‘black eye’’ to ‘‘train wreck.’’ On Thursday, June 24, three days after the scandal broke, the Republican members of the Illinois congressional delegation unanimously asked House Speaker Dennis Hastert to try to persuade Ryan to get off the ballot. Several GOP county chairmen also weighed in against Ryan. For example, the chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party commented that his actions were ‘‘repulsive and alien for people in southern Illinois.’’ DuPage County Chair Kirk Dillard commented that ‘‘only in the Land of Oz would people think that Jack Ryan can beat Barack Obama after this week’s activity.’’
Responding to pressure from the media, especially the Chicago Tribune, and a backlash among Republican voters and party leaders, Ryan said he would withdraw his name from the ballot on June 25. In pulling out, he said he did not want to run a brutal, ‘‘scorched-earth campaign that has turned off so many voters, the kind of politics I refuse to play.’’ Some wondered at the time whether this was a good move or whether the party should have waited for voters’ reactions.
One Illinois political observer noted that ‘‘He [Ryan] got in trouble for having sex with his wife. Given Illinois’ history that is not even a fig leaf on the tree of corruption.’’ Meanwhile, Senator Peter Fitzgerald accused State Party Chair Judy Baar Topinka of dumping Ryan to undermine his potential gubernatorial bid in 2006.
While most media attention focused on Ryan, Obama continued to campaign. He tried to tie his opponent to President Bush’s policies, which were relatively unpopular in Illinois, but he took the high road on the question of Ryan’s divorce, vowing not to make it an issue and calling on Democratic party leaders not to do so as well. In contrast to the primary, where he focused most of the attention on the Chicago area, the general election campaign was clearly a statewide effort. The day after the primary, he traveled to Alton, in southern Illinois, followed by visits to Peoria, Rock Island, and Galesburg in the western part of the state the following day.
OBAMA V. NO ONE
Ryan’s exit set the stage for the nineteen-member Republican State Central Committee to come up with a replacement. The process turned out to be lengthy and difficult, with many of the most desirable candidates saying ‘‘no thanks,’’ while several of the losers from the primary found themselves rejected again. To replace Ryan, Republicans flirted, in varying degrees of seriousness, with candidates ranging from Federal Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to three former Chicago Bears players to 70s rocker Ted Nugent. Finally, they settled on media personality and failed presidential and Maryland Senate candidate Alan Keyes.
Almost immediately after Ryan’s withdrawal, prominent Republicans such as former governors Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar refused to enter the race. Initially, attention turned to Ron Gidwitz, a wealthy business-man, former state Board of Education chairman, and leading Republican fundraiser. Gidwitz dropped out on July 1, saying he did not want to leave Illinois. Next in line was primary candidate state senator Steve Rauschenberger, but he also declined to run due to doubts that he could raise enough money to run a viable campaign. Meanwhile, second-place primary finisher Jim Oberweis, who appeared to actually want the nomination, was not considered seriously. His campaign ads opposing immigration, and, by implication, President Bush’s policies, alienated prominent national Republicans.
Former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka then intimated that he might enter the race. His candidacy began when staffers for Illinois House Minority Leader Tom Cross started a half-serious website encouraging him to run. Somewhat surprisingly, he expressed interest in the race, with his high profile and name recognition raising Republican hopes. He was serious enough to meet with Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee head Senator George Allen of Virginia and State Party Chair Topinka, before abruptly pulling out on July 14. In withdrawing, Ditka expressed concern about how he would react to increased media scrutiny, the loss of lucrative endorsement deals, and the prospect of having to play golf on unfamiliar courses.
After missing their self-imposed July 16 deadline, the Republicans experienced continued frustration as they searched for a candidate.
Next to turn the party down was State Senator Kirk Dillard, who rejected the offer to run due to concerns about fundraising and leaving Illinois. Obscure Cook County board member Elizabeth Doody Gorman, whose Republican credentials were in some doubt, but who nevertheless supposedly appealed to suburban women, eventually spurned the party, citing time and money concerns.
Throughout this time, Obama campaigned as if he did have an opponent, traveling the state and giving speeches. At an event in downstate Lincoln, he quipped, ‘‘At this point, even if you don’t like me, you don’t have much of a choice.’’ Of course, he remained in office as a state senator, where he sometimes took centrist positions to bolster his state-wide appeal. For example, despite being a strong advocate of gun control laws in the past, he voted for legislation allowing retired police officers to carry concealed weapons.
Obama’s stature rose dramatically during this period, as he began to receive attention outside the state of Illinois. He was the subject of profiles in the national media that viewed him in ‘‘near-Messianic’’ terms.
Obama’s appearances on Sunday morning talk shows before the Democratic National Convention led Bob Schieffer of CBS to label him a ‘‘rock star.’’ He also continued to raise large amounts of campaign money, including a great deal from celebrities ranging from Barbra Streisand to Michael Jordan. Probably the most significant event in his entire campaign occurred when he delivered a highly acclaimed key- note speech to the Democratic National Convention on July 28. Still largely unknown outside Illinois before the convention, Obama was probably one of the most obscure choices to deliver a keynote address in modern convention history. Past notables chosen included New York Governor Mario Cuomo, Texas Governor Ann Richards, and future president Bill Clinton. Obama’s selection reflected an effort by the Kerry–Edwards campaign to reach out to black voters and to mollify critics who said there were not enough African Americans in top campaign jobs.
Obama began the speech by telling his personal story of humble origins, explaining how his father grew up herding goats and his grandparents enjoyed the benefits of federal programs, such as the GI Bill and Federal Housing Administration. He tied the narrative to the American
Dream, saying, ‘‘In no other country is my story even possible.’’ He also stressed communal themes, implicitly criticizing excessive individualism.
If there’s a child on the South Side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen who can’t pay for their prescription … that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grand- mother. If there’s an Arab-American family that’s being rounded up … that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes this country work.
The speech tried to achieve a centrist tone, stressing what unites Americans. After criticizing pundits and negative campaigning, he said, ‘‘We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the War in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people.’’
The speech received almost universal acclaim and made Obama an overnight sensation. Some political consultants described it as the best keynote address in many years, and the New York Times reported that Obama ‘‘owned the town’’ the following day. Time magazine described it as ‘‘one of the best speeches in convention history,’’ and the Pitts- burgh Post-Gazette labeled it ‘‘a trenchant and vivid piece of oratory delivered in a melodic voice.’’ Even some Republicans were complimentary. Bob Winchester, a member of the Illinois Republican State
Central Committee that was trying to pick Obama’s opponent praised the speech and added, ‘‘I just wish he was a Republican.’’ In another indicator of the impact of his speech, his autobiography rose from six hundred seventy-six to the top ten on Barnesandnoble.com during the week of the convention.
While clearly benefiting from this media attention, Obama tried to downplay the suddenly heightened expectations, including predictions that he would be America’s first African American president. He noted, ‘‘I’ve spent seventeen months as David and one month as Goliath. I tend to distrust hype.’’ Nevertheless, a reporter covering post-convention campaign events described Obama fever running at a ‘‘scorching temperature.’’
Immediately after his triumphant return from the Democratic National Convention, he took a five-day, thirty-county tour of downstate Illinois.
Befitting his new celebrity, crowds at his appearances that once numbered in the dozens now were in the hundreds. In some cases, events had to be moved to larger venues at the last minute to accommodate his increased fan base. He assured these adoring crowds that he had not ‘‘gone Holly-wood’’ despite his newly found acclaim as a national star. In many of these appearances, he stressed local issues, such as increasing markets for ethanol and bringing broadband Internet access to rural areas.
Meanwhile, Obama’s sudden fame and adulation made the Republicans’ task in finding a replacement even more difficult. Senator Peter Fitzgerald, the man the nominee would try to replace, commented that ‘‘you wouldn’t have thought this search could be any harder than it was a week ago but it just got harder because of the rollout of Barack.’’ He further compared accepting the Republican nomination to willingly contracting cancer. Potential nominee State Senator Kirk Dillard expressed relief that he had not entered the race against Obama, commenting that the hoopla surrounding his speech ‘‘would have made my uphill climb even tougher.’’
An increasingly desperate Republican State Central Committee met on August 3 to interview and discuss remaining candidates. Fourteen contenders were interviewed that day, including four of the original primary candidates, most prominently second-place finisher Oberweis.
Also among those considered was a candidate wearing a white colonial wig who lived in his car. The previous day, committee members had contacted Alan Keyes about his interest in running. Although unable to attend, Keyes agreed to fly to Illinois later in the week for an interview.
After hours of interviews and heated discussion, State Central Committee members narrowed the field to two African American candidates with tenuous connections to Illinois, Keyes and Andrea Grubb Barthwell. Keyes, a former candidate for U.S. Senate from Maryland and two-time contender for the Republican presidential nomination, was an outspoken social conservative. Barthwell had quit her job as a deputy drug czar in the Bush administration’s National Office of Drug Control Policy a few weeks earlier to become eligible to run for the Senate. Her potential effectiveness as a candidate suffered from reports that she had been the subject of an internal sexual harassment investigation. Among other things, she allegedly had pretended a kaleidoscope was a male sex organ at an office party and placed it on an employee’s chair for him to sit on. As if this were not enough potential bad publicity, she also had a history of alcohol and drug addiction. The decision to pick Keyes or Barthwell was contentious. Reporters were removed from the floor where the meeting was held at one point, because of concerns that they would overhear the yelling going on inside. Upon leaving, one committee member was described as ‘‘ashen-faced,’’ and another said she was ‘‘not happy.’’
The following day, after interviewing Keyes, the State Central Committee chose him. After taking a few days to think about it, he accepted.
Although the choice excited conservatives, early reviews from parts of the GOP establishment were somewhat tepid. One GOP insider commented, ‘‘I think we’re like alcoholics, we’ve finally hit bottom.’’ U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, while nominally endorsing Keyes, compared the decision to a football coach who must go deep into his depth chart to find a replacement player. Supporters believed that even in the likely event of Keyes’s loss, he would bring conservatives to the polls, helping Republicans regain control of the state senate.
OBAMA V. KEYES
Keyes’s campaign focused largely on issues related to his religious and moral beliefs, particularly abortion. By contrast, Obama tended to emphasize bread-and-butter concerns, such as the economy and health care. Keyes also adopted, or at least displayed, the campaign persona of an angry preacher, which turned out to be no match for Obama’s rock-star charisma. Although anyone facing Obama would have faced an uphill battle, Keyes did little to improve his chances.
As the campaign began, Keyes wasted no time in aiming his rhetorical guns at Obama. On his first official day of campaigning, he com- pared Obama’s pro-choice stance on abortion to the ‘‘slave-holder’s’’ position on slavery. This was to be the first of several widely publicized, provocative statements that Keyes uttered in the campaign. A week later, he told a crowd in Aurora that Obama’s views on abortion resembled terrorists, ‘‘who are willing to use force to destroy the lives of innocents.’’ At the Republican National Convention Keyes labeled Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter and all gays ‘‘selfish hedonists.’’ After returning to Illinois in early September, Keyes claimed that Jesus would not vote for Obama, due to his vote in the Illinois senate against legislation requiring abortion doctors to save viable fetuses.
In mid-October, Keyes told an anti–gay marriage rally that incest was inevitable for the children of homosexual couples, because they would not know who their biological brothers and sisters were. In the campaign’s final days, he compared free trade to ‘‘gang raping’’ the American economy.
Keyes’s rhetorical outbursts dismayed many Republican officeholders, who felt they undermined the party’s chances in other races.
State party chair and Illinois treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, for example, described Keyes’s Republican convention comments as ‘‘idiotic’’ and did her best to avoid being seen or photographed with him. A downstate conservative activist criticized Keyes’s campaign as ‘‘not your typical folksy Midwestern campaign. It can be off-putting at first.’’
His over-the-top rhetoric appeared to reflect a strategic decision that would allow Keyes’s relatively underfunded campaign to get free media, as his finances kept him from running paid TV commercials until the contest’s last week. In a meeting with top Republican donors in September, Keyes reportedly said that he would make ‘‘inflammatory’’ comments ‘‘every day, every week,’’ until the election. Keyes’s media adviser commented that ‘‘where traditional candidates do their best to avoid controversy, Alan seeks it out.’’ His embrace of conflict turned more people off than on, however. Even when he emphasized less incendiary issues, they seemed unlikely to appeal to voters much. For example, he identified repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, which mandates that U.S. Senators be elected by the people rather than state legislatures, as a ‘‘critical’’ issue in his campaign. He also promoted a plan to exempt the descendents of slaves from taxation as a method of reparations.
By contrast, Obama’s campaign focused largely on issues such as the economy and health care, while he criticized Keyes for emphasizing abortion at the expense of matters that were more salient to Illinois voters. Obama placed his ideas in the context of the struggles of ordinary families to make ends meet as the Bush administration focused on tax cuts for the wealthy. In doing so, he occasionally violated the conventional wisdom that politicians must be optimistic and avoid ‘‘class war-fare.’’ In an October appearance, he argued, ‘‘We may be the first generation in a very long time to pass along a world to our children that’s a little bit meaner, and a little bit poorer than the one we inherited, and that’s unacceptable, and it’s un-American.’’
In the realm of economic policy, Obama advocated eliminating tax incentives for businesses that move jobs overseas, enforcing U.S. trade agreements, and improving education and job training. On health care, he proposed expanding coverage to children and those over fifty-five and creating a health insurance pool for small business owners to insure their workers. He also advocated a plan that would give a tax credit to families earning under $50,000 annually who saved for retirement through an IRA or 401K.
Although he emphasized them less, his view on social issues generally fit the traditional liberal mold. He advocated the pro-choice position on abortion, supported stem cell research, and essentially supported gay marriage without doing so explicitly. Nevertheless, he rejected the ‘‘liberal’’ label as a Republican-created caricature that poorly fit his views.
Instead, he preferred the term ‘‘thoughtful progressive,’’ combining a belief in government action to solve problems with a commitment to fiscal responsibility.
In the foreign policy arena, Obama advocated political and economic initiatives to promote democracy in autocratic nations, thereby stopping terrorism at its source. He argued that the use of ‘‘soft power’’ was preferable to military action in addressing the root causes of terror ism. He did leave the door open for military action in Iran, if sanctions failed, identifying the threat of nuclear weapons there as the United States’ biggest foreign policy challenge.
In his campaign, Obama also stressed larger themes of citizenship and political engagement, arguing that citizens had a civic responsibility to go beyond voting and gain a deeper understanding of issues. He argued that voters must be aware of obligations to future generations, saying, ‘‘We don’t just inherit the world from our parents, we borrow it from our children. So we have an obligation to give them clean air and water and a Constitution that’s not poked full of holes.’’ Similarly, he stressed the need to uplift political debate in the United States. In a speech in southern
Illinois, he said, ‘‘People are tired of hearing politicians attack each other when they wish someone was attacking their problems.… We need to raise the complexity of this country, not simplify it into 30-second slogans.’’
Late in the campaign, at an appearance in Peoria, he criticized Keyes directly for debasing political discourse, accusing him of a ‘‘scorched- earth, slash and burn, say anything, make-up anything approach to politics.’’ He added, ‘‘Think about if you were on the job and lied all the time … and you sent out brochures saying ‘Jim in the cubicle across from me is a terrible person.’ Think how productive that company would be.’’
One of the biggest challenges the Obama campaign faced with Keyes was trying to ‘‘keep their eye on the ball,’’ by not letting Keyes goad them into arguing. Despite this awareness, Keyes did occasionally succeed in setting the terms of the debate, focusing it on moral concerns, thus undermining to a degree Obama’s ability to frame it around issues such as jobs and health care. He forced Obama to explain and defend his own religious beliefs and to lay out his interpretation of the Bible on the campaign trail. In a forum at Illinois Benedictine University, Obama claimed that ‘‘his Christianity had been challenged’’ and explained his own views on the relationship between religion and public policy, contending that when faith guides decisions it can lead to absolutism. He argued that ‘‘politics is the art of compromise. Faith is, by definition, not open to compromise.’’ In addition, Keyes appeared to get under Obama’s skin in at least a few instances. For example, in an appearance in southern Illinois, Obama said ‘‘I don’t just want to win. I want to give this guy who is running against me a spanking.’’ Keyes responded in a typically provocative fashion that Obama’s language was ‘‘the language of the master, who, when he is displeased with the slave gives him a whipping.’’
At the same time, Keyes’s bombastic campaign style probably allowed Obama to avoid explaining or justifying some of his more nuanced positions. For example, he claimed to support both free trade and the repeal of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Moreover, he was not forced to explain how some of his positions had changed since the primary campaign. In the primary, for instance, Obama took a strong anti–Iraq War stance. In the general election, he continued to oppose the war, but also argued against an immediate pull-out. Although such position shifts are typical as candidates move from primaries to general election campaigns, Keyes probably could have done more to force Obama to explain them. The exception concerned some social policy questions like gay marriage. Keyes’s focus on the issue forced Obama to elucidate his fairly complicated position that combined opposition on religious grounds, support for civil unions, and a belief that individual states should ultimately decide the matter. Critics blasted Obama’s position as ‘‘impossible to take seriously,’’ viewing it as a smokescreen behind which he supported gay marriage without really appearing to do so.
If Keyes was able to neutralize Obama somewhat in the realm o issues, the frontrunner clearly won the contest of style and personality.
In contrast to Keyes, who usually resembled a preacher in his campaign appearances, Obama tailored his style and use of language to different audiences in different settings. For example, he sprinkled appearances in southern Illinois with the word ‘‘y’all,’’ while using ‘‘precise, polished’’ language in speaking to upper-class suburbanites and inserting black slang into speeches before African American audiences. At the same time, he emphasized his political independence and leadership qualities by supposedly telling people what they ‘‘didn’t want to hear.’’ For instance, he would inform fiscal conservatives that he would raise their taxes, liberals that government was not the answer to all their problems, and union leaders that they really believed in free trade.
His combination of honesty and adaptability clearly worked for him. After an Obama campaign appearance at the State Fair, the Mayor of Rockford commented, ‘‘There were a lot of Republicans in the crowd that just said ‘I like this guy. I believe in this guy.’ It almost has a Paul Simon feel. You know I don’t really agree with this guy on a lot of issues, but I believe what he says. I believe he is sincere.’’ Like Simon, voters gave Obama high marks for integrity and appreciated the fact that he did not engage in ‘‘smear politics.’’ Further enhancing his appeal, Obama mastered the nonverbal techniques of connecting to people in speeches, such as opening his hands with fingers slightly spread, indicating inclusion, or using eye contact in a way that showed he was ‘‘tuned into’’ his audience.
Ultimately, Keyes was unable to appeal to voters, other than a small core of strong conservatives who turned out enthusiastically at his rallies. A poll in September showed Keyes with a 22 percent favorable rating, compared to 60 percent for Obama. The same survey showed that the ‘‘carpetbagger’’ issue hurt Keyes, making at least one-third of those responding less likely to vote for him. In an October poll, 39 percent of voters labeled Keyes as ‘‘extremist’’ compared to 11 percent for Obama. As the campaign wore on, Keyes continued to lose the support of many in the Republican establishment, especially moderates.
Republican critics charged that Keyes was not doing enough to attack Obama’s record as a state senator and focused too much on morality issues, at the expense of taxation and budget matters. In fact, Obama was able to use his state senate experience as a positive in his campaign, arguing that it prepared him well to understand the legislative process. A mid-October statewide mailing sent out by the Republican Party promoting the ‘‘Republican team’’ conspicuously left off teammate Keyes. Meanwhile, the Democrats paid to have their own fliers sent out that linked Keyes explicitly to Republican state legislative candidates they were trying to defeat. In an unusual move, the Obama campaign also promoted Keyes’s campaign events to reporters, in the apparent belief that ‘‘the more exposure Keyes gets, the better it is for Obama.’’
Referring to Keyes, one Obama staffer commented, ‘‘You couldn’t have paid him to say some of the things he said.’’
Despite Keyes’s efforts to keep him on the defensive, Obama’s vast lead in the polls provided him the time and opportunity to attend out- of-state fundraisers to help other candidates in New York, Minneapolis, Birmingham, Washington, D.C., Martha’s Vineyard, and elsewhere. By early October he had already helped raise $850,000 for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and $260,000 for individual candidates in thirteen states. In addition, he contributed $283,000 to other candidates running in 2004. Early in the campaign, Obama attracted prominent out-of-state supporters, such as one-time presidential candidate and future Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean and former Georgia Senator Max Cleland to campaign with him. He later returned the favor, using his star power and fundraising ability to help other Democratic candidates. Even the Kerry–Edwards presidential ticket recruited him to campaign in battleground states and mobilize black voters. By September, Obama was traveling out of state so much that his campaign tried to keep his movements secret. Late in the campaign, with victory a foregone conclusion, Obama diverted some of his volunteer workers to assist the campaign of northwest suburban Chicago Democratic congressional candidate Melissa Bean. Re?ecting his now-abundant campaign funds, Obama began running TV commercials in mid-August during the Olympics. The initial ads were designed to ‘‘reintroduce’’ Obama downstate and emphasized his ability to work in a bipartisan fashion on issues like tax relief and health care. In the last three weeks before the election, he spent about $2 million on additional statewide advertising. He was also able to get a great deal of free media. Even a top-twenty single promoted his politi- cal efforts, as an all-star group of rappers posed the question, ‘‘Why is Bush acting like he trying to get Osama? Why don’t we impeach him and elect Obama?’’ Obama was endorsed by all of Illinois’ major newspapers, and an Associated Press survey of daily newspapers found that none reported endorsing Keyes.
As noted above, Keyes was unable to run television ads until the last week or so of the campaign when he unveiled spots where various luminaries from President Reagan to radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh spoke on his behalf. Keyes may have benefited from some indirect spending, however. Radio and TV ads paid for by a 527 group called ‘‘Empower Illinois’’ criticized Obama’s state senate votes in favor of abortion, against tougher sentences for gang crimes, and in favor of sex education programs for kindergartners. Although supposedly independent of Keyes’s campaign, these ads did reflect some of his major themes. The Obama campaign responded that these votes were taken out of context. The campaign culminated in three debates, disappointing Keyes, who needed the platform and was never at a loss for words. Originally, Obama had agreed to six encounters with Jack Ryan, but offered fewer to Keyes, joking that the original offer was for in-state residents only.
Keyes compared Obama’s refusal to schedule more debates to a boxer who talks big when the ring is empty, but bolts when facing actual competition. This was one of the few cases where the Obama campaign received sustained criticism in the media. Critics charged Obama with hypocrisy for calling for many debates when he was an unknown, but changing his mind as a celebrity candidate with a big lead. The first debate, on the radio on October 12, was largely a civil discussion of major policy issues, such as the war in Iraq, Illinois’ infra- structure, trade, and prescription drugs. The candidates differed on tax policy, with Keyes favoring a national sales tax to replace the income tax and Obama arguing that it would mean higher taxes for most low-and middle-income Americans. Keyes was also more supportive of Bush administration policies in Iraq. Near the end, Keyes attacked Obama for not voting in favor of the ‘‘Born Alive Infants Protection Act, which required doctors to try to save the life of a fetus that survived an abortion. Obama responded that existing Illinois law protected infants’ right to life-saving treatment and that therefore the law was unnecessary. By some accounts, Keyes ‘‘won’’ this debate, as Obama found it difficult to adjust to the fact that his opponent performed ‘‘as an almost normal candidate,’’ rather than the ‘‘raving lunatic’’ he had expected to face.
The second debate, a televised affair on October 21, was a more antagonistic clash over religion, morality, and which candidate was more authentically African American. In response to Keyes’s efforts to paint him as immoral, Obama presented an economically based vision of morality, arguing that taking away long-time workers’ pensions and providing inadequate aid for college students was unjust. Keyes reiterated that he believed that Jesus would not vote for his opponent, to which Obama responded that he didn’t like being lectured on religion by Keyes. ‘‘That’s why I have a pastor. That’s why I have a Bible. That’s why I have my own prayer.… I’m not running to be minister of Illinois.
I’m running to be its United States Senator.’’ Reacting to the debate, columnist Rich Miller noted, ‘‘Keyes, for his part, failed to disappoint his many detractors. His weird, herky-jerky hand gestures … and his overly patronizing manner … emphasized for spectators that the pompous river of moralizing invective flowing from his mouth wasn’t even close to the Illinois mainstream.’’
Also televised, the third debate took place on October 26. Like its predecessor, it featured clear disagreements between the candidates and was described as ‘‘sometimes testy,’’ with the moderator struggling to keep control. The contenders clashed on the role of government in solving poverty, with Obama arguing that it could help and Keyes responding, ‘‘the first mission of the United States wasn’t government, it was self-government.’’ Gay rights was another area of conflict, with
Obama accusing Keyes of gay-bashing and criticizing Keyes’s claim that gay adoption led to incest, while struggling to explain his own opposition to gay marriage. Keyes also criticized Obama for sending his children to private schools while opposing school choice.
The race ended on a sour note, as in a final fit of pique, Keyes refused to call Obama on election night to concede the contest. He blamed ‘‘Republicans in name only’’ and the media for his defeat. In his own election night speech, Obama continued his pleas for political civility and called on his audience to ‘‘close the gap between the ideal of America and its reality.’’
ANALYSIS OF RESULTS
In the end, Obama defeated Keyes 70 percent to 27 percent, the largest gap ever in an Illinois U.S. Senate race. He captured ninety-two of Illinois’ 102 counties, limiting Keyes to a group of ten rural counties, primarily in southeastern Illinois. Obama had his best showing in Cook County, which cast nearly 40 percent of the statewide vote, winning with 81 percent of the vote, including 88 percent in the city of Chicago and 74 percent in the suburban part of the county. Within the city, he won all fifty wards by at least 70 percent. He was most successful in black neighborhoods, exceeding 90 percent of the vote in each of the nineteen wards represented by an African American alderman and top- ping out at an amazing 97 percent in the Fifth, Eighth, and Thirty- fourth Wards. He generally received between 80 and 90 percent of the vote in Hispanic areas of the city. His worst showing was in the predominantly white Forty-first Ward on Chicago’s far northwest side, where he got about 70 percent, but in more liberal white-dominated lakefront areas, he received over 80 percent of the vote.
He won more than 70 percent of the vote in four other counties: Fulton, Gallatin, Knox, and Rock Island. These jurisdictions generally fit the ‘‘rust belt’’ stereotype of struggling industrial areas coping with the loss of jobs and population. Knox County’s largest city, Galesburg, for example, has received national attention as a symbol of industrial decline and the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The 2004 election took place two months after a Maytag refrigerator factory that once employed 1,600 people closed and moved to Mexico, following on the heels of other major job losses. His strong showing here in such struggling industrial areas suggests that Obama did well among working class white voters concerned with economic issues. Exit poll results provide further evidence for this interpretation and showed Obama beating Keyes 79 percent to 20 percent among union members. Obama also won the five Chicago suburban collar counties and every metropolitan area of the state with at least 60 percent of the vote. Obama’s weakest showing was in rural Illinois, although he still won 58 percent of the vote in the state’s sixty-seven nonmetropolitan counties. He won fifty-seven of these counties and scored more than 60 percent of the vote in twenty-four. Obama tended to do better in more densely populated rural areas with more minorities, higher poverty, and lower incomes. Table 3-1 illustrates this contrast by comparing the demographic characteristics of the nine counties in southern Illinois (south of Springfield) that Obama lost with the nine counties in the same region that he won by over 60 percent.
Obama was able to capture nearly 40 percent of the Republican vote and one-third of self-identified conservatives. It was clear that many voters, especially conservatives from downstate, voted for Obama, even though they disagreed with him on many issues, because they couldn’t abide the alternative and/or resented Keyes for having few connections to Illinois. Obama’s own issue-driven campaign style appeared to help him attract these voters, who might have sat out the contest if he had ‘‘gone negative.’’ Despite his race, Keyes failed to make in-roads with African Americans, as Obama won over 90 percent of their votes. About the only major demographic group that Keyes won was conservative white protestants, who supported him overwhelmingly.
The results suggest that Obama’s emphasis on issues like the economy, jobs, and health care resonated with voters concerned about those issues. By contrast, he did less well with voters concerned about moral values, terrorism, or taxes. Obama got high marks from voters who thought intelligence or the ability to bring about change were important qualities, but fared poorly among voters concerned about religious faith.
Statewide, Obama ran about fifteen percentage points ahead of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. His margin was even higher in suburban Chicago, especially outside Cook County. In the five collar counties, he got 65.4 percent, compared to Kerry’s 45.5. In three rapidly growing counties—DeKalb, Grundy, and Kendall—on the western fringes of the suburbs, he got 62.9 percent of the vote, while Kerry got 43.2 percent. These results suggest that Obama appeals to suburban voters more than some Democrats do, which is significant because suburbs are becoming a political battleground where success is key to either party’s chances. Alternatively, suburbanites may have found Alan Keyes especially hard to stomach. Nevertheless, suburbanites were only slightly more likely than voters statewide to support minor party candidates. In the collar counties, the libertarian and independent candidates claimed 3.6 percent of the vote, compared to 3 percent statewide. This fact suggests that Obama was relatively appealing to suburban voters.
As in the primary, Obama ran a savvy campaign, but he was clearly lucky as well in facing Alan Keyes rather than Jack Ryan. Thus we raise a question similar to that in the last chapter—what if Jack Ryan’s divorce files had remained sealed and he had stayed in the race?
Although it is, of course, impossible to say, we believe that, although the race would have been closer, Obama would still have defeated Ryan, for at least four reasons. First, in Democratic-trending Illinois, Ryan’s party was clearly at a disadvantage. The Democratic primary attracted nearly twice as many voters as the Republican contest, and Obama alone received more votes than the eight Republican candidates combined. Given Obama’s strength in Cook County, Ryan would probably have had to win the suburban collar counties by at least 55 percent and downstate by 75 percent to have beaten Obama. Because President
Bush lost Illinois by twelve points in 2000, he did not plan to campaign much in the state, even before the divorce scandal, so Ryan was not in a position to benefit from his coattails.
Second, polls taken before the divorce scandal broke showed Obama with a healthy lead. A Chicago Tribune/WGN poll from late May had Obama leading 52 percent to 30 percent. The poll also showed two other advantages for Obama. He had a higher favorable/unfavorable ratio than Ryan, with Obama at 46 percent favorable and 9 percent unfavorable, compared to 29 percent favorable and 25 percent unfavorable for Ryan. Also, the poll revealed that Obama was actually less well known than Ryan, meaning that his voting base was less static than his one-time opponent’s.
It is true that another poll taken in early June showed the race tightening. Nevertheless, we still believe that Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention and the other positives of his campaign are a third reason to believe that he would have defeated Ryan. Finally, Ryan was an inexperienced candidate and clearly had not worked out all the kinks in his campaign, even before the divorce scandal hit.
Although the two candidates were arguably an even match in terms of charisma, Obama’s loss to Bobby Rush in 2000 helped him perform better as a candidate. Also, his experience as a state senator gave him a superior understanding of politics and government, which prevented him from stumbling over basic facts, as well as providing vital campaign allies.
Understanding Obama’s success in both the primary and general elections requires a closer look at two key elements of contemporary Senate campaigns: raising money and getting the candidate’s message out through the media. The next two chapters examine these matters more closely. Chapter 4 looks at Obama’s remarkable fundraising abilities and his efforts to compete with the wealthy, self-financed Blair Hull, and chapter 5 details his media strategy.