The Election of 2008: Primaries and Caucuses 

 Capturing the Party's Nomination

In February of 2007, Barack Obama declared his candidacy for president of the United States. He used the backdrop of the Illinois state capital in Springfield to draw a comparison with the candidacy of Abraham Lincoln. His term as U.S. Senator was only in its second year, but he could make the claim that he was unfamiliar with the "ways of Washington," thereby portraying himself as an outsider. He based his campaign on a call for change, and this message resonated with the Democratic Party faithful.

John McCain announced his candidacy in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the state where he made a surprising comeback against George Bush during the 2000 campaign for president. McCain had to smooth over the differences he had experienced within his own party while creating a contrast with his counterparts in the opposing party. He stressed his experience in government, having been in the US Senate for 26 years. His campaign bus was called the "Straight Talk Express" as he stressed his honesty while downplaying the celebrity factor surrounding Barack Obama.

The Party Conventions

Barack Obama addressed the Democratic National Convention in St. Paul to accept the nomination of his party in June of 2008 after defeating Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in a very close battle for convention delegates. There he called for respect for John McCain and the military and public service he had given to his nation.  But Obama painted the McCain campaign not as an agent of change but as a continuation of Republican policies put in place during the presidency of George W. Bush, policies that he claimed had brought the nation to its economic knees and disgraced America in the eyes of the international community. McCain criticized Obama for trying to brainwash the American people into believing McCain and Bush were similar in policy. He pointed out that he was well known for running counter to the mainstream of the Republican Party. In so doing, he was trying to appeal to the center of the voting public.

The Democratic Rivalry

Barack Obama's achievement of defeating Hillary Clinton cannot be overstated. Clinton was able to claim experience since she witnessed presidential power as first lady for eight years during the administration of her husband, Bill Clinton. She could also claim legislative experience after having served a full term as the junior senator from new York who was able to win re-election in 2006. When Hillary Clinton launched her campaign, she claimed to be engaging "in a conversation with the American people," seeking solutions to problems such as ending the war in Iraq, restoring American prestige abroad, becoming independent of foreign oil sources, shore up Medicare and Medicaid, and create affordable health care. Hillary Clinton was the first candidate to use the Internet to broadcast her platform using email and video blogs, but her attempts failed to communicate a clear message. It would be Barack Obama who would harness the power of technology to gather information about potential supporters and outmaneuver the Clinton campaign. As voters expressed their views at the nation's first caucus in Iowa, the final tally showed the star power that Obama was bringing to the contest. He was able to pick up disaffected voters from the Richardson and Edwards camps and come out of the Iowa caucus as the winner. The Clinton campaign made its way to New Hampshire licking its wounds, trying to figure out what had gone wrong in a state that should have been theirs.

The Republican Field

John McCain had to emerge from a pack of Republican candidates early in the primary season. One of his chief rivals was the handsome and presidential-looking Mitt Romney, the son of a governor and former governor of Massachusetts. Romney had been a leader not only in politics but also in business, so he had a special claim to knowing how to improve the steadily decaying economy. Romney called on the federal government to use the mental and creative resources of the private sector to drive innovation and reduce the need for government regulation. When he declared his intention to run for president, he claimed to have the backing of his five sons and his spouse. Romney also brought religious controversy to the Republican race for the nomination since he was a Mormon. This fact led evangelical Christians, a large part of the Republican base, to look elsewhere for leadership. They found their man in former Arkansas governor Michael Huckabee, who acted something as a spoiler in the Republican race. he pulled enough votes from the Romney camp so as to disable him and allow John McCain an easy victory.

An early frontrunner among the Republicans was former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani was already known as a tough prosecutor and mayor when he led New York through the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. His strength under pressure made him a national hero, which he intended to use to propel him to the top of the Republican pack. Questions about his personal sabotaged his presidential bid, and he never edged higher than fourth in any primary contest. 

Upset in New Hampshire

At the same time, John McCain's campaign was suffering from mismanagement and financial distress. Experts were getting ready to write John McCain off as he went into the New Hampshire primary. He had been robbed clean by those who worked for him, and he was losing support due to his pro-Iraq war policies. When he emerged victorious from the New Hampshire primary, it energized his campaign and gave it new life. On the Democratic side, Barack Obama failed to turn his Iowa upset into victory in New Hampshire. Hillary Clinton came out of the nation's first primary with one in the win column, forcing the Obama camp to reconsider its strategy and take the Clinton threat seriously.

The Impact of Race, Religion, Gender, and Timing

The primary season started earlier this year than it ever had before. The states of Florida and Michigan decided they wanted more attention in the primary process, so they moved their election dates into January against the wishes of the democratic national Committee. the committee threatened to refuse to seat the delegates of these two states in August at the national convention if they went ahead with their election dates, ones that came ahead of traditional primary election dates of Iowa and New Hampshire. The states failed to heed the party's warnings, and there was serious talk about refusing to seat these delegates. The real problem came when Barack Obama won in these two states, and claimed that the delegates that rightfully belonged to him should be seated when the convention came up. In the end, they were counted and seated, and the delegates of these states contributed to the candidates to which they were pledged.

Questions about Senator Obama's patriotism, religion, and race came into play as Senator Obama navigated his campaign through the sometimes stormy waters of the media and rumor-mongering. His relationship to Reverend Jeremiah Wright, a pastor in the United Church of Christ where Obama worshipped, brought into question Obama's judgment and patriotism. Rev. Wright's fiery anti-American speeches had surfaced, and Obama had to decide how he was going to keep this relationship from damaging his campaign on one hand while staying true to the African-American community on the other. Senator Obama decided to address the nation in a speech on race. 
Entitled "A More Perfect Union" Senator Obama's speech included these words:

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are part of America, this country that I love.

 Not only did Senator Obama refuse to repudiate Rev. Wright, but he called on all Americans to face the issue of racial discrimination and prejudice squarely as part of the issues that make up the campaign. He called on all Americans to engage in a dialogue about race so that the areas of conflict could be brought into the national consciousness and addressed. The move worked. Most viewers felt that Obama had handled the issue appropriately, and he did no major harm to his poll numbers as a result. Weeks later, Obama had to renounce the actions and statements of Rev. Wright when Wright went on his own speaking tour and made matters worse. For now, Obama had weathered the storm of race in the campaign.

The Turning Point

The Democratic rivalry between Senators Obama and Clinton seemed at a deadlock going into the Super Tuesday races in February of 2008. The Clinton campaign was suffering from its own mismanagement and lack of funds to the point where senator Clinton had to load her campaign money from her own personal account. As the states of Super Tuesday cast their ballots for their Democratic nominee, Obama build a lead in the delegate count as a result of the proportional counting system adhered to by the Democrats. Even through Clinton won a number of races late in the primary process, it was too late for her to overcome the lead Obama had established. Florida was the turning point for John McCain. He was able to take all of the delegates of that state, which put him past the point of no return  toward the Republican nomination. He would be able to sit back and prepare for the general election while the Democrats continued devote money and resources to battle it out for several more months. Governor Romney and Mayor Giuliani promptly gave Senator McCain their endorsement, ostensibly unifying the Republican Party even more when compared to what seemed like a divided and fractious Democratic Party.

The end of the primary season was just the beginning of the general election phase of the campaign. Barack Obama's speaking skills, his call for "change we can believe in" and use of technology led to a massive fundraising success to the tune of $600 million, a record for fundraising, which his campaign claimed came from small donors who gave on the average $50. The McCain campaign counted on their candidate's personal story of courage under fire and his experience in both the military and in government. Both campaigns targeted independents and moderate conservatives on both sides of the political divide. Once Obama solidified his delegate lead, Senator Clinton directed her delegates to throw their support behind Obama at the convention. She shared with Senator Obama the common goal of removing the Republicans from the White House. But more importantly for her, she recognized that her political future would be tied to his, and if he ascended to the presidency, whether she stayed in the Senate or joined his administration, her political star would rise with his. 

Learn more about how caucuses work. (

Listen to and read Senator Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech

The Schedule of Democratic Primaries and Election Results

The Schedule of Republican Primaries and Election Results

Topic:  Primaries and Caucuses 

Objectives: The students will:

1. compare and contrast different types of elections: primaries, caucuses, and the general election.

2. show how the candidates of the 2008 election were selected as the party's nominee before the national convention for each party through primaries and caucuses.

3. evaluate how the candidate field of the 2008 election carried on their campaigns from the time of their announcement as candidates to the end of their campaigns.

Opening Activity (Warm-Up): How Caucuses Work

A.  Display or have students visit the Des Moines Register website ( on how caucuses work. A printed copy can also be distributed to students if the Web is not available.

B. Instruct students to create a flow chart or diagram that illustrates how a state caucus works for both Democrats and Republicans. Display diagrams and have students present their diagrams to the class .

C. Have students compare verbally the difference between a direct primary and a caucus. (A caucus is a meeting of rank and file party members who cast their vote as a preference for a candidate. If a candidate fails to reach viability, they can submit their vote for another candidate. In a direct primary, voters place their vote by secret ballot without negotiation or discussion).

Main Activity:

A.  Have students develop a timeline of the election from the announcement of candidates entering the race up to the nomination of the candidate as the nominee of their party using information and images from the web and print media.  Instruct students to color-code the progress of each candidate and indicate the following events:

1. The announcement of candidacy.
2. The formation of an exploratory committee.
3. The candidate's filing for office.
4. The results of the Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire Primaries, subsequent state primaries.
5. Dropping out of the race.
6. Significant speeches
7. and other events that affected the campaign.

B. Place students' timeline on the board or wall so that they can refer to it during subsequent activities.

C. Have students watch "The Choice" a PBS Frontline Presentation. The entire episode can be viewed at

D. As the program progresses, point out where in the timeline each major event can b found. Parts 6-10 deal specifically with the primaries of the 2008 election.
have students point out the events seen in the video in the reading above.

Wrap-up Activity: Act It Out

A. Choose several students to act out a caucus for the Democratic party.

B. Have students illustrate  the difference between closed and an open primary through drawing simple images on the board.

C. Have students write brief definitions of these terms on the board or their own papers:

1. Direct primary

2. Caucus

3. Open primary

4. Closed primary

5. Nomination

6. National Convention

Assessment: The lesson will be assessed by

1. The quality of student responses in writing and discussion activities.

2. Scores on future tests and quizzes.

George Cassutto's Cyberlearning World

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