Propelled by massive turnout and a deep desire for change, Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States, soundly defeating John McCain as Democrats expanded their majorities in Congress and set the stage for a new era of activist government in Washington.
The breakthroughs for Obama were his victories in Ohio, a swing state that had gone Republican in recent years, and Pennsylvania, which McCain had hoped to pull back from the Democratic column. Obama also won the normally GOP states of Florida, Colorado, and New Mexico.
In an address to a jubilant and massive throng in Chicago's Grant Park, Obama echoed Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. in calling for unity and conciliation as he prepared to take over the White House at a time of severe problems, including the financial crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a healthcare system under distress, climate change, and widespread anxiety about the future of the country. He called on Americans to work "block by block, brick by brick, callused hand by callused hand" and to "summon a new spirit of patriotism and responsibility."
"Change has come to America," the president-elect said.
For his part, moving beyond the often bitter nature of the campaign, McCain gave a gracious concession speech that praised Obama's determination and recalled with sadness the death of Obama's beloved grandmother the day before the election.
Despite the drama of election night, the presidential race had actually stabilized in the week before the balloting, with Obama in the lead. In fact, 15 major surveys gave Obama, a freshman Democratic senator from Illinois, a solid edge in the 24 hours before the balloting. He benefited from the facts that more than 8 out of 10 Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction and 7 out of 10 disapprove of President Bush's job performance. McCain's association with fellow Republican President George Bush seriously hurt his candidacy.
Most important, McCain couldn't overcome a tidal wave of concern, fear, and anger about the financial crisis. Exit polls for the Associated Press and the television networks showed that 62 percent of voters said the economy was their biggest concern. About 19 percent listed Iraq or terrorism, and nine percent said healthcare. Only about 35 percent approved of the Iraq war, which McCain has supported and pledged to win, and which Obama has promised to end as quickly as possible.
Analysts of both parties say the most important period of the campaign started September 15 when the financial meltdown began and the media started giving the economic crisis enormous publicity. Voters tended to blame the incumbent president's Republican Party for the mess, which was bad news for GOP nominee McCain. As voters watched the two candidates respond to the crisis, they saw Obama as the more steady, deliberate leader, while McCain seemed erratic and impulsive. That's when McCain lost his advantage as a tested commodity and the "safe choice," and Obama got beyond concerns that he was inexperienced and the bigger risk, according to Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.
McCain also made a huge mistake by moving away from the experience issue and focusing on the idea of bringing change, at time when Obama's reputation as a national security neophyte still had resonance with voters. McCain muddied his message when he named Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate—someone who also has minimal national security experience, making it much more difficult to criticize Obama for being more risky on national security. "They walked away from their brand and their strength," says Greenberg, who advised President Bill Clinton during his successful 1992 campaign and during his first term. "'That was a colossal error."
Race had been considered a wild card in the election, with some pollsters wondering if a significant number of white voters would vote against Obama because he is African-American. But 9 out of 10 voters said race wasn't important to their vote. About the same percentage said age wasn't important either, even though McCain is 72. The candidates' stands on the issues seemed far more important.