Anyone can point to the big reasons for Barack Obama's surprising success in 2008. There's his personal appeal and the country's readiness for a new face and style in presidential politics. Surely his ability to raise nearly $150 million on the broadest donor base in American history has been crucial, too.
But February has revealed another key element in the Obama plan, one that had been largely overlooked. His campaign emphasized building support and organizing turnout in caucus states. Most of these are smaller in population and do not have primaries to choose their delegates to the Democratic National Convention. They rely on precinct level caucuses to gauge the sentiment of activists and core voters.
It started with Iowa, of course, the state that made caucus states famous by putting its event at the front of the line. Ever since 1972, this upstart caucus has won national attention by going ahead of everyone, including New Hampshire, which by law holds its primary first in the nation.
Obama won the Iowa caucuses two days after New Year's and then turned the same intensive attention and tactics on a succession of other caucus states: Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, Washington.
Obama won all eight of these contests by wide margins, and the size of the margins matters because it allows him to take the lion's share of the delegates. His 80 percent in Idaho, for example, gave him 15 out of 18 delegates at stake, and 74 percent in Kansas gave him 23 out of 32. That's as close as you can come to winner-take-all in the Democratic Party, obsessed now for four decades with distributing delegates in proportion to the vote.
In the other two states to caucus so far, Nevada and New Mexico, Hillary Clinton was the apparent winner in the raw vote. But the vote was so close that Obama emerged with a virtual draw in delegates awarded both times: Clinton will reap no more than 26 delegates from the two states together while Obama gets no fewer than 25.
Still to come are caucuses in Hawaii and Wyoming and Texas (which also holds a primary). If current trends hold, Obama is likely to win Hawaii and Wyoming, and he has a fighting chance in the Lone Star caucuses as well. That would help him balance out Clinton's expected strength in the primary held the same day.
Winning in these states has paid big dividends for Obama's campaign on three fronts.
First, it has enabled him to overcome Clinton's early lead in the delegate count, which swelled with wins in California, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. With caucus wins this past weekend, Obama pulled ahead in the race for pledged delegates. His overall total, including the superdelegates (elected officials and party officers), is expected to surpass hers following the Potomac Primary on Feb 12.
Second, the caucus strategy has enabled Obama to win more states numerically and grab more headlines in so doing. On Super Tuesday, Clinton won slightly more votes and delegates nationwide, but Obama won 13 states to her 8 (not counting New Mexico). With Obama racking up three more caucus states over the following weekend, and adding several more primary states thereafter, he is on track to finish February winning 22 states (plus the District of Columbia) to Clinton's 11.
Third, and perhaps as important, winning all these caucus states frees Obama from being typecast as The African American Candidate. When interviewers ask about his poor showing among whites in the South (most recently in Louisiana's Feb. 9 primary), Obama shrugs and asks how many black people there are in Idaho or Alaska or North Dakota.
That may not answer the question of racially polarized voting in the South, but it allows Obama to maintain his claim to transcending race. And in this sensitive stage of the Democratic nomination contest, maintaining that claim may be as important to Obama's chances as counting states and delegates won.