I first noticed the brilliance of Barack Obama’s campaign when I was looking up Hanover College on the Internet. I believe it was on the U.S. News college rankings website. When I pulled up the Hanover College page, there was an ad for Barack Obama, telling prospective Indiana students that there was only one day left to register for the primary.
My son, then a senior at Elkhart Memorial High School, voted for Obama in the primary, as did many of his classmates. Obama nearly won that primary. Hillary Clinton’s Pyrrhic victory in Indiana, coupled with her huge loss in North Carolina the same day, sealed the nomination for Obama. While Obama put together a vast coalition, the Millennial Generation--those between 18 and 30--was crucial to his victory.
Thirty-six years ago, another insurgent Democrat was counting on another huge generation to put him into the White House. He was, of course, George McGovern, and the generation was mine. I voted for him in 1972, but so many of my fellow Baby Boomers failed even to register, let alone vote.
The ‘72 campaign also occurred at a time when we were fighting an unpopular war and when the administration in power was trampling on the Bill of Rights. But the McGovern campaign (though not McGovern himself) spent much political capital righting past wrongs against fellow Democrats. Perhaps Richard J. Daley deserved to be thrown out of the Democratic Convention, but that one act cost McGovern Illinois.
McGovern gave his beautiful “Come Home, America” acceptance speech at around three in the morning, thanks to his supporters’ petty squabbles on the convention floor. Of course, he has to take responsibility for failing to control his enthusiastic, but vindictive, adherents. His failure to vet his first vice presidential choice, Thomas Eagleton, cost him dearly, in those days when clinical depression was far less understood. And his campaign was so tightly focused on opposition to the war that when Henry Kissinger announced that peace was at hand, McGovern had lost his main issue. The threat of being drafted to fight in Southeast Asia had been lifted; Richard Nixon coasted to a landslide victory.
Barack Obama was against the Iraq war, but General David Petraeus’s brilliant strategy of co-opting the Sunni militias and drastically reducing the violence in that war did not put an end to the Obama message. He did not depend on the antiwar issue, but talked as much about the economy, the environment, and America's role in the world as a whole, that his candidacy did not implode. His campaign had the benefit of Hillary Clinton’s endorsement. The prediction that her supporters would defect to the Republicans, widely touted, did not come true. (John McCain’s patronizing selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate surely hurt him with former Clinton backers.) In contrast, the 1972 credentials fight between McGovern and Hubert Humphrey was still smoldering in November.
But Obama’s greatest strength, through the whole campaign, was his unrelenting optimism and message of hope. It is was the strength of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John and Robert Kennedy. It connected with so many of us from every generation. And it brought a great new generation to the polls in large numbers. The Millennials did what we Boomers could not do: elect an insurgent Democrat to the White House.