Change Is In the Air, At the Polls

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, February 14, 2008

Win or lose, Barack Obama has changed America. It's one thing to believe in a picture we'd like to be true -- a society moving toward a colorblind ideal -- and something entirely different to live each day with a personification of that ideal.

"I've actually changed my view of Americans," said Marvin Lawson of Columbia, a black man who is retired and went with his wife, Victoria, to see Obama speak at the University of Maryland this week. "I've been pleasantly surprised. This country still has a racial divide; we cannot ignore that. But this campaign will take us to the next level, that we really are ready to accept those values we espouse as a nation."

Obama won a majority of the white male vote in Virginia's Democratic primary Tuesday. He won a majority of the seniors there, too, according to exit polls.

Perhaps even more important, for the fall election and our polarized, low-participation polity, Obama drew hundreds of thousands of first-time primary voters to the polls Tuesday. In Virginia, one-third of Democratic voters told pollsters they were participating in their first primary. In Maryland, more than twice as many people voted in Prince George's County as in the primary four years earlier.

The Obama effect contributed to a remarkable event: Eight-term Rep. Al Wynn, of Prince George's and Montgomery counties, fell to second-time challenger Donna Edwards. Sure, Edwards's long march in pursuit of Wynn weakened him in his constituents' eyes, but look at the numbers. In the Montgomery portion of the 4th District, Edwards won 60 percent of the vote two years ago and 67 percent this time. But in the Prince George's part, she leaped from 40 percent in 2006 to 55 percent Tuesday, rocketed to victory by the huge turnout for Obama.

It didn't matter that Wynn, like Edwards, endorsed Obama and showed up to work the crowd at Monday's lovefest at Comcast Center in College Park. The voters were clear. It was out with the old and in with the new.

But take a deep breath and pause. Let's not pretend we're dancing hand-in-hand into a new era of comity all because of one charismatic figure. Maryland voters tossed two incumbent congressmen to the curb Tuesday. Democrats ousted Wynn, and Republicans on the Eastern Shore and parts of Anne Arundel County discarded nine-term Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, in both cases rejecting men who were deemed too moderate for the taste of more ideologically driven primary voters.

Still, we are experiencing a bump of the nation's political tectonic plates. The changes have been happening for a long time, and we are only now realizing how deep they are. And those changes are not merely about racial attitudes. This is a generational shift as well. What first appeared to be a movement driven by college students is now winning the hearts and votes of boomers, the very crowd that had been the focal point of the Clintons' appeal.

At the College Park rally, three women from Silver Spring talked about how Obama reminds them of the sense of possibility that permeated their idealistic youth.

"I brought my daughter here because I was thinking about when I was 8 and my mother took me out of school to see Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson campaigning, and the school gave my mother a lot of grief about it," Barbara Shulman said. "I'm just tired of Bill Clinton. I like this energy. And Obama can beat the Republicans."

"My trust in the Clintons has eroded," Leslie Garcia said. "This feels right."

"How could we not be here?" Suzanne Mintz asked. "It's just inspiring to see jazzed young people. This is the first election where I feel everybody's voting for somebody and it's not just the better of two evils."

It's not hard to imagine those same comments having been made about Bill Clinton 16 years ago, but time alters perspectives. Hillary Clinton today seems to many Democratic voters the embodiment of an inside operator, her experience pitch backfiring against her. Things change.

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