"It's hard to know whether Obama would have gotten the nomination in another year," says Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. "But there was a sense in the Democratic Party that this was an unusual year, ... the country really was ready for something different. The difference happened to come in the guise of a black man, but it could just have easily been a Latino or a different woman. There was a sense that this was a time to break the mold."
And voters did break the mold. The nominating race opened with eight Democratic hopefuls. One by one, the candidates with venerable Washington résumés – among them statesmen like Sens. Joseph Biden Jr. and Christopher Dodd – fell away. Left standing were the nation's most successful female and black presidential candidates, a historymaking duel in a country that once denied women and African-Americans the right to vote.
Democrats' fault lines exposed
The nip-and-tuck battle yielded record turnouts, energized Democrats in states long resigned to irrelevance, and stirred hope for a more inclusive America.
But it also exposed demographic fault lines and stoked fears about the party's ability to unify in time for the general election. Senator Clinton relied on a coalition of women, older Americans, and working-class whites; Obama drew overwhelming support from blacks, the young, independents, and higher-earning professionals.