Barack Obama, the son of a father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, was elected the nation’s 44th president Tuesday, breaking the ultimate racial barrier to become the first African American to claim the country’s highest office.
A nation that was founded by slave owners and seared by civil war and generations of racial strife delivered a smashing electoral college victory to the 47-year-old first-term senator from Illinois, who forged a broad, multiracial, multiethnic coalition. His victory was a leap in the march toward equality: When Obama was born, people with his skin color could not even vote in parts of America, and many were killed for trying.
Obama was winning in every state his party carried four years ago, including Pennsylvania, which McCain had worked vigorously to pry from the Democratic column. Obama was also making significant inroads into Republican turf, carrying Ohio and Virginia, the latter voting Democratic for the first time in more than 40 years. He was also winning the swing states of New Hampshire, Iowa and New Mexico, which backed President Bush in 2004.
The major TV networks and the Associated Press called the race for Obama within minutes of the polls closing, sparking a raucous celebration in Chicago, where hundreds of thousands of celebrants gathered in Grant Park along the city’s waterfront.
Giant video screens at the scene were tuned to CNN. Each time the network projected a state as an Obama win, the crowd erupted in cheers. The battleground states produced the loudest roars – first Pennsylvania, then New Hampshire, then Ohio, then, finally, victory.
Moments later, the Obama campaign announced that McCain had called the president-elect to concede.
Voters also handed Obama a fortified congressional majority, as Democrats picked up several seats in the Senate and in the House. The party knocked off at least two GOP incumbents, including North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
McCain, burdened by his party’s toxic image, prevailed in a band of states that comprise a shrinking Republican base, mainly in the South, the Plains and parts of the interior West.
In winning the White House, Obama to a large degree remade the electorate: About one in 10 of those casting ballots Tuesday were doing so for the first time. Though that number was about the same as four years ago, most of the newcomers were under age 30, about a fifth were black and a fifth were Latino. That was greater than their share of the overall population, and those groups voted overwhelmingly for Obama.
Overall, he won large majorities of women, black and Latino voters. Although he lost among white voters, Obama narrowed the margin significantly from 2004.
For most voters, the sagging economy was the topmost concern – a dynamic that played strongly to the Democrat’s favor. Six in 10 voters said the economy was the most important issue facing the nation, according to exit polls – far more than cited energy, Iraq, terrorism or healthcare.
Voters flocked to the polls in record numbers Tuesday, continuing a pattern of electoral exuberance that started in the primary season. There were scattered voting problems reported throughout the day, including long lines, malfunctioning voting machines and mislaid ballots.
But there was nothing like Florida’s infamous “butterfly ballot” fiasco, which sent the 2000 presidential contest into several weeks of overtime before the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in to settle the race.
Mostly, there was patience, good cheer, and for many, pride in taking part in a slice of history, whatever the result; had he won, McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, would have been the first woman to serve as vice president.
Lines began forming across the country before the sun had risen, with queues starting at 4 a.m. in New York City. The outcome across most of the Democratic-leaning Northeast was never in doubt, but many felt it was their responsibility – and privilege – to vote.
“I needed to cast my own ballot today, not just because it’s my duty as a citizen but because for once it feels like it counts,” said Eric Schwartz, 36, a computer specialist on New York’s Upper West Side. “It’s a more global feeling. Like I needed to make a mark on a day when things matter. Today, everyone matters.”
In Arlington, Va., Takia Williams, 25 and African-American, wrestled with her frustrated 2-year-old, who wanted to play on the slide in the back seat of their car. But nothing could dampen Williams’ spirits after casting a ballot for Obama. “I couldn’t wait to vote,” she said.
Obama will be one of the youngest presidents in American history, the first born outside the continental United States (in Hawaii) and only the third to move directly from the U.S. Senate to the White House.
He burst on the national political scene just over four years ago, with an electrifying keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Obama’s soaring speech previewed themes he would reprise in his presidential bid, including a call to end the partisanship symbolized by a country divided into Republican red and Democratic blue.
Months after that address, Obama won his U.S. Senate seat, and there was immediate talk of a run for president. The speculation, however, vastly understated the challenge facing Obama, who by his own admission entered the crowded Democratic field as a decided underdog. His victory over New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton after a long, contentious primary season was in itself one of the great political upsets of all time.
Contrary to the wisdom at the time, the battle did not sap but rather strengthened Obama. He built campaign organizations in traditionally Republican states, like Nevada, North Carolina, Colorado and Indiana, that came into play in the fall thanks to the groundwork laid in the spring.
Obama also became a better, more substantive candidate and a much stronger debater, which served him well in his three matchups with McCain. Obama’s unflappable performance on stage and steady response to the Wall Street meltdown helped allay voter concerns about his judgment, maturity and readiness to assume office, undercutting what was perhaps McCain’s strongest argument against the freshman lawmaker.
For all the wild celebration in Chicago, there were quieter moments that captured the full weight of history.
Former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, a veteran of protests in Selma, Birmingham and other racial flash-points, was among hundreds of black Atlantans who crowded the pews for an election-watch party at the Rev. Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. When CNN called the state of Pennsylvania, an early harbinger, Young pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed away tears