The bottom line is that RULES MATTER. We see the effects of those rules in a close race, but also see how adaptable each candidate's campaign is to those rules. Obama's campaign was better at foreseeing how the race would progress. PERIOD. Was that by design? Yes, but to a large degree there is some luck involved there. He had to have all the chips fall in just the right place for that plan to work. So while there may have been discussions within an Obama campaign still in its infancy then about a caucus strategy as early as last summer, they still needed Iowa or New Hampshire or Nevada or South Carolina to help even get his campaign to that point (the caucus phase between Super Tuesday and Wyoming a month later on March 8). Those Obama successes in Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina were anything but given even at the outset of the 2008 calendar year.
Foresight and luck are the marks of a long shot winning the nomination. Arguably Obama is not, in 2008, the long shot that Jimmy Carter was in 1976. Both, however, were effective at navigating through the rules of the game. And things worked out the way both campaigns expected; both by design and through some luck. Carter needed early success in Iowa and New Hampshire to set him up for an elimination contest against George Wallace in Florida. He needed that elimination to claim the mantle as the southern (albeit more moderate) candidate in the race for the Democratic nomination.
In 2008, Obama needed a win, any win, among the early states to be seen as viable in the overall contest and heading into Super Tuesday on February 5. That he got a win in mostly white Iowa was certainly better than having broken through in South Carolina, where African Americans made up over half of the primary electorate. But his win in Iowa signaled to African Americans that he was viable to an audience broader than simply African Americans. Without that signal, the race may not have played out the way it did in South Carolina. The polls in the state prior to Obama's Iowa win showed a tight race between Clinton and Obama. And even then the endorsement of the influential, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), was still sought after by Clinton, Edwards and Obama to put any one of them over the top. But it was just before
On the other hand, at the outset of the contests, Clinton's path to the nomination was the clearer one. But luck runs both ways and Clinton had some bad luck. Her campaign leaned way too heavily on the approaches to the presidential primary process of the past. But we all did. Why wouldn't both parties' nominations be settled by Super Tuesday? That's the way it had been in most nomination contests since 1988. [Of course, the Clinton campaign didn't fall back on those approaches enough to take her name off the ballot in Michigan for that state's non-sanctioned primary. That decision was curious at the time given her status as front-runner.] The Super Tuesday or bust strategy was fine, in and of itself, but they never had a Plan B in place if the states that held contests on February 5 didn't hand her enough delegates for the nomination. And they certainly didn't foresee Obama building a firewall in caucus states.
The message, as always, is that rules matter. And if your knowledge of them is anything less than full, then you are vulnerable to defeat. The discussion, then, is not one of whether caucuses are democratic, or popular votes should be the metric by which a nominee is determined, or of Florida or Michigan. That's a discussion that can be had by both parties when and if they seek to reform the process between now and 2012. The discussion is about a campaign that thought primary season would go one way and later discovered (the hard way) that they had guessed wrong.
The Electoral College Maps (5/21/08)
Colorado Congressional District Caucuses Final Tally: 67% of the Vote, 64% of the Delegates
And Off Again: Kansas Presidential Primary Bill Vetoed