Graduate Program

Political Science

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Semester of Degree Completion


Thesis Director

Melinda A. Mueller

Thesis Committee Member

Kevin R. Anderson

Thesis Committee Member

Richard A. Wandling


The 2008 Democratic primary is often regarded as a once-in-a-lifetime political event. Democratic frontrunner and former first lady Hillary Clinton faced off against Illinois junior Senator Barack Obama. Despite a commanding position in national polling that led many pundits to declare the race Clinton's to lose, her campaign faltered during the primary, allowing Obama to find himself in a commanding position to be the Democratic Party's nominee for president. An exploration of the two campaigns, however, reveals stark differences in strategy, messaging, fundraising, and the use of technology.

In terms of strategy, Hillary Clinton's campaign was unprepared to contest the Obama campaign's masterful plan for victory. The Obama campaign focused intensely on Iowa, the first state to cast votes in 2008. After Obama's eventual victory in Iowa, his campaign was able to survive a defeat five days later in New Hampshire. Even before voters in the four early-voting states (which also includes Nevada and South Carolina) cast ballots, the Obama campaign was preparing for a long contest, and began organizing in later states, paying close attention to caucus states that the Clinton campaign largely left uncontested. Obama was then able to open up a large lead in pledged delegate totals, which he would keep until the end of the primary season.

This paper reveals how Obama was able to defeat Clinton, despite her campaign's many advantages. Aside from the aforementioned strategic decisions of both campaigns, I research how the race was impacted by management decisions, respect for voters, arrogance, and entitlement. Using comparative case studies of the two campaigns, I find that Obama, and not Clinton, much better prepared for victory. I also discuss the 3 electability argument, finding that despite Clinton's claims, Obama proved to be just as electable in the general election against John McCain than she may have been.

I also discuss how my research fits in with previous scholarly literature on primary elections. While the 2008 Democratic primary was very unique, my research attempts to contribute to the existing knowledge of primary races. In many respects, the Obama campaign followed a traditional "long-shot" approach, with an intense focus on delegate allocation and fundraising. Other long-held findings about primary campaigns did not come to fruition. Momentum was not much of a factor for either candidate in 2008. Plus, research positing that national poll standings are in important predictor of primary did not withstand the events of 2008.