Obama Sells His Narrative

Press knew he would win big, but still treated it as HUGE NEWS

The accolades for Obama couldn’t have scaled higher heights last night. At one point on CNN, Donna Brazile pronounced him “a metaphysical force in American politics.” Praise was heaped upon praise, and it’s no wonder. As the race has narrowed, it’s impossible not to be struck by the contrast between an Obama speech and the geriatric grumblings of McCain or Clinton’s forced smiles. And last night did prove a kind of breakthrough for the Illinois senator. He beat Clinton in every major demographic and only barely lost among white women and older people. He even won the Latino vote.

But what you had to be impressed with, even more than his margin of victory, or the speech and the monstrously huge crowds that came out to hear it, was how triumphantly he prevailed in the battle of the narratives.

As soon as Super Duper Tuesday turned into Normal Everyday Wednesday, the conventional wisdom going forward was that Obama was going to sweep through the next month with a series of wins. The way the calendar was configured, the states holding contests were just demographically more favorable to him, heavy with the demographics that comprise his base.

If you don’t believe me, look at what the blogs were saying. This was Noam Scheiber at The Plank at around one in the morning last Tuesday, a few hour after the polls closed:

…I figured I should just say a few words about what’s likely to happen in the coming weeks, and why a lot of us think it favors Obama. The next round of contests, slated for Saturday, includes Louisiana, Washington state, Nebraska, and the Virgin Islands. Louisiana is going to be nearly 50 percent African American, Nebraska and Washington are caucuses, which Obama dominated tonight, and the Virgin Islands are the Virgin Islands. (Though, if I must, I think people give Obama the advantage there for demographic reasons, too.) The next day is Maine, also a caucus, and then one week from last night is Virginia, Maryland, DC—all expected to favor Obama demographically. The Tuesday after that brings Hawaii—Obama’s native state—and Wisconsin, which should also be friendly territory for Obama…. Between his near-certain money advantage, the momentum he’ll pick up from the intervening contests, and the fact that he tends to do pretty well in states where he has time to campaign, I think you have to give him the overall edge going forward.

I found dozens of other examples of pundits and savvy bloggers expressing exactly the same sentiment: Obama was going to rack up win after win in the next month.

Hillary Clinton’s people tried to actually work with this reality by spinning it as a foregone conclusion. The story they wanted told was that these were easy and obvious wins for Obama, and so we shouldn’t really make a big deal out of them. Meanwhile, Obama’s people were trying to tamp down expectations that he would do so well, hoping that it would be played big when he did.

Well, you can judge for yourself this morning who won in this narrative battle. It’s clear from all the headlines with the words “surge” and “sweep,” not to mention the New York Post’s reliably histrionic, “WHAM BAM,” that Obama got the better of Clinton on this critical front. It’s true his margin was impressive and indicated a potentially expanding base of support, but the breathlessness with which it was all reported didn’t quite capture how predictable it was—and had been—that he would do well in these three states. Bias? Not really. More like the desire to tell a good story, I think. Who doesn’t love a winner?

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.