Obama candidacy rewrote campaign books, professor says

Saturday, February 7, 2009 | 6:07 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — The way the 2008 primary and general elections were carried out should give campaign managers reason to re-evaluate their strategies — President Barack Obama's campaign, which included mass text messaging and Internet-driven fundraising, was unprecedented.

“Every book on presidential primaries has to be rewritten,” said Hanes Walton Jr., professor of political science and senior research scientist at the University of Michigan. “…This is so ahead of political science.”

Walton spoke Friday afternoon to about 30 people about the role black voters played in the election of Obama and the lasting implications of the historic election during a lecture at MU's Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center.

Walton said many Americans never believed they would see the election of the nation’s first black president in their lifetimes. But he also wanted his audience to recognize the struggles and obstacles that had to be overcome to arrive at this milestone.

“Maybe in my children’s lifetime,” he said, “but I could have never imagined that I would see it.”

Walton said he has compiled a list of every black politician who has ever run for a seat in the U.S. Senate because he found no such record existed and quickly found this was a more daunting task than he had imagined. With his research focusing on the role of race in politics, he said he spent six years unearthing this information and had a difficult time finding it.

“It was as if they had dropped off the pages of history,” Walton said.

He pointed to the example of Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. She became the first woman and the first black person to seek out the Democratic nomination. She won only the state of New Jersey.

“Pick up a book on presidential primaries,” Walton said, “(and) look her up. You will not find anything about her.”

Walton said that with the arrival of Obama in the national spotlight, he thinks historians are suddenly interested in documenting black Americans in politics.

“Nobody was doing any work in this area,” Walton said. “Now the president looks biracial and everybody wants to do a book.”

Walton also addressed the factors that he thinks allowed Obama to capture the Democratic nomination over rival Hillary Clinton.

At the beginning of the primary season, many black Americans seemed to throw their support toward Clinton, Walton said, and several reporters and political scientists approached him for an explanation.

Walton said he thinks many black Americans had not yet been exposed to Obama at the time. It was not until Obama appeared in Iowa, promoting his book, "The Audacity of Hope," that he realized he could be successful in a bid for the presidency, Walton said.

Walton also said he thinks Obama’s victory should be credited to his creative-thinking campaign managers. It was the innovative way of raising money and reaching out to younger voters that allowed Obama to be so successful, Walton said.

While the 2008 election is now just another chapter in the history books, Walton thinks its effects will be felt for a long time. Black voters have been neglected in the past, but now their presence and influence in the political realm can be felt, he said.

“African-Americans came out and supported Barack Obama at the highest level they have ever supported anyone,” Walton said. “They made the difference and helped Virginia, Florida and North Carolina turn to blue states and win the South.”

Walton also said that it was "unheard of" that Obama carried nine battleground states.

“Barack Obama pushed the envelope,” Walton said. “And that’s what it took.”

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