Book review: The Battle for America 2008

The Battle for America 2008 By Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson

Reviewed by Steven R. Maher

“It’s a pretty fascinating slice of Americana” – Barack Obama on the 2008 election.

The 2008 Presidential election will fascinate historians for generations to come. And the aptly titled “The Battle for America 2008” by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson will be great resource for historians writing about that drama. It is a great first draft of history.


This book is unusually impartial. This is because the authors used the journalistic device of letting the primary actors – candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Sarah Pallin – speak for themselves. Throughout the book, at key historical moments, the major players are quoted in conversations with campaign aides, coming to a decision or explaining an event.

We see how the candidates interact. For example, Obama might make a decision to criticize McCain. The scene switches to McCain headquarters, where McCain reacts. It’s an interesting look inside the Presidential electoral process, fascinating for the political junkie watching campaigns act and react, juxtapositioning for advantage.

The language is clear and concise. The chapters are often short, allowing the reader to take a break without losing the flow of the narrative.

Disproportionate share

A disproportionate share of the book is devoted to how Obama overcame Hillary Clinton. When 2008 began Clinton was seen as the insurmountable front runner with every advantage: name recognition, a massive campaign war chest, and a nation wide organization. Obama had two things going for him: his charisma and his early opposition to the war in Iraq.

The key was Iowa. “Obama, the novice, surrounded himself with an Iowa-savvy team of advisers and made a critical strategic bet: to put almost all his emphasis on the state,” write the authors. “Clinton, far more experienced, surrounded herself with a cadre of senior advisers who did not know Iowa or its caucus process. They were slow to organize and waited too long to make a full commitment. Even then, they spent months debating how much to put into their operation and how to position her. Her vote for the Iraq war provided Obama an opening in a state with a history of antiwar sentiment.”

Obama’s victory in Iowa had two results. First, it led to the disintegration of the Clinton campaign. Despite Hilary’s victory in New Hampshire, her campaign soon imploded amidst infighting and recrimination. Second, Obama’s campaign became practiced at caucuses, a process the Clintons’ despised: “Idaho became the textbook study of the Obama operation.”

The February 5, 2008, super Tuesday had nearly two dozen primaries, six of which were caucus states. Obama poured money and manpower into the caucus states; Clinton was advised to ignore the caucus states. Obama rolled up the caucus state delegates unopposed. After super Tuesday, he won a string of victories, many in caucus states. By the summer his delegate lead was insurmountable.

“It was malpractice what they did to her,” said one Clinton aid of the advice not to compete in the caucus states.

McCain’s surge

The Republican race had less colorful candidates. John McCain won virtually by default. He took the huge gamble of tying his campaign to Bush’s surge strategy in Iraq. It was popular with the Republican base.

McCain’s choice of Sarah Pallin was an impulsive gamble to ignite a campaign weighted down by the albatross of the Bush presidency. McCain’s campaign staff little about Pallin. The McCain speech writer putting together her announcement speech had to research Pallin on the Internet for facts to include in the speech.

The defining moment in the Obama-McCain race was the September 2008 financial crisis. McCain called off a Presidential debate, claiming the crisis required his presence in Washington, then back- pedaled and went to the debate. It made him look impulsive and not totally rational. After that, the election was all but over.

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