Within moments of Barack Obama's victory speech in Iowa, the conventional wisdom dramatically changed. Much like John Kerry, Obama was expected to take an enormous bounce with him to New Hampshire, defeating Clinton there before truly running the table. The pundits expected it; the polls predicted it; but the win never came. Hillary Clinton had marched to an extraordinary comeback that night, besting Obama by three percent.
Even those who had envisioned an Obama victory from early on were discouraged. The expectation was that, despite his low national numbers, his win in Iowa would propel him to sequential wins, ending with victory on February 5th. This was certainly the core strategy of the Obama campaign. But having lost New Hampshire, and days later, Nevada, it looked as though Obama's chances were slipping away, inexorably.
But on the other side of an exceptional month for Obama, one thing has become clear: the loss in New Hampshire proved ironically valuable.
Obama has since become a stronger candidate. After Iowa, he quipped at a massive rally, "You're the wave, and I'm riding it," believing, like many, that the race would soon be over. After New Hampshire's painful upset, however, he recognized that he must work hard for each vote, not allowing the media hype to lift him into the clouds.
He built large, well-financed organizations in states that would have been ignored had the campaign calendar not been extended. These include Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Louisiana, among others, all sure-fire battleground states for the general election. Having proven that organizing on the streets of Chicago could translate on a national stage, Obama has been able to mobilize voters in record-breaking form. Those organizations will be crucial come November.
The extension of the campaign season gave Obama the opportunity to meet far more voters and hold far more rallies, helping him consolidate support around the country. In every state he's campaigned in, his numbers have risen dramatically, proof that the more voters get to know him, the more they approve.
Obama was also given the time to truly breathe in his new status, to reconcile the possibility that the presidency is actually within reach. After South Carolina, he became calm and confident, at ease with himself and the tasks ahead. Each of his one-on-one debate performances showcased a candidate who had learned a great deal, able to float between policy and poetry with grace and precision. And when treated as a front runner by both Clinton and McCain, Obama has been strong and agile, attacking aggressively without ceding the high ground.
Tactically, Obama has proven himself a worthy nominee to voters judging his electability. His team has crafted a near-flawless campaign plan, with a message that Obama delivers with consistent discipline. He is clearly a strong fighter, able to verbally strike when necessary, but always within the context of his broader appeal. He has built an unmatched fundraising operation, having shattered all records with a small donor base, one million strong. Perhaps, most importantly, he has demonstrated an ability to mobilize voters in a way no independent effort could match. In a year that could require unprecedented Democratic turnout, Barack Obama can deliver.
Beyond tactics, Obama has had the time to convince voters of his readiness to lead. After winning Iowa, voters nationally continued to view Clinton as the more substantive and capable candidate. By wide margins, she was considered a better potential commander-in-chief. Had Obama's momentum carried him to victory in New Hampshire, with the collapse of the Clinton campaign to follow, he would have inherited a party not yet ready to believe.
But through intensive scrutiny, top notch debate performances, countless stadium-sized rallies, and many millions of dollars in advertising, Obama has turned the tide. Recent exit polls have shown that he is now viewed as equally capable of commanding the military, and equally qualified to be president.
Having weathered the storm, Obama has emerged in a much stronger position for the general election. He has become a wiser candidate and has convinced his party that he is ready. Still, he's taking no chances. At a press conference on Thursday, in the midst of outspending and out-organizing the Clinton campaign in Texas and Ohio, he recounted the lesson he has learned above all:
"Remember New Hampshire."