By Robert Barnes and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 5, 2008 12:01 PM
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois was elected the nation's 44th president yesterday, riding a reformist message of change and an inspirational exhortation of hope to become the first African American to ascend to the White House.
Obama, 47, the son of a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, led a tide of Democratic victories across the nation in defeating Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a 26-year veteran of Washington who could not overcome his connections to President Bush's increasingly unpopular administration.
Standing before a crowd of more than 125,000 people who had waited for hours at Chicago's Grant Park, Obama acknowledged the accomplishment and the dreams of his supporters.
"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer," he said just before midnight Eastern time.
"The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you: We as a people will get there." After the speech he was joined on stage by vice president-elect Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and both their families.
The historic Election Day brought millions of new and sometimes tearful voters, long lines at polling places nationwide and celebrations on street corners and in front of the White House. It ushered in a new era of Democratic dominance in Congress, even though the party appeared unlikely to meet its goal of capturing the 60 Senate votes needed for a filibuster-proof majority. In the House, Democrats made major gains, adding to their already sizable advantage and returning them to a position of power that predates the 1994 Republican revolution.
Democrats will use their new legislative muscle to advance an economic and foreign policy agenda that Bush has largely blocked for eight years. Even when the party seized control of Congress two years ago, its razor-thin margin in the Senate had allowed Republicans to hinder its efforts.
McCain congratulated Obama in a phone call shortly after 11 p.m. and then delivered a gracious concession speech before his supporters in Phoenix. "We have had and argued our differences," he said of his rival, "and he has prevailed."
"This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African Americans and the special pride that must be theirs tonight," McCain said.
Obama became the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976 to receive more than 50 percent of the popular vote, and he made good on his pledge to transform the electoral map.
He overpowered McCain in Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Pennsylvania -- four states that the campaign had spent months courting as the keys to victory. He passed the needed 270 electoral votes just after 11 p.m. with victories in California and Washington state.
The Democrat easily won most of the Northeast, the Rust Belt, the West Coast and mid-Atlantic states that normally back Democrats. By midnight, he appeared to be running strong in North Carolina, Indiana, Missouri and Montana, each of which was too close to call. Obama ultimately won in Indiana, bringing his electoral college total to 349, while McCain won Montana, bringing his total to 163 electoral college votes. The outcome in North Carolina and Missouri remained uncertain.
Obama melded the pride and aspirations of African Americans with a coalition of younger and disaffected voters drawn to his rhetorical style, and a unified base of Democrats worried about the economy and frustrated with the war in Iraq.
He is the fifth-youngest man elected to a first presidential term, after Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Ulysses S. Grant. He is the 16th senator to ascend to the office, and the first since Kennedy's election in 1960.
Bush called Obama at 11:12 p.m. to offer his congratulations, the White House said.
"Mr. President-elect, congratulations to you," Bush said, according to the White House. "What an awesome night for you, your family and your supporters. Laura and I called to congratulate you and your good bride."
He added: "I promise to make this a smooth transition. You are about to go on one of the great journeys of life. Congratulations, and go enjoy yourself."
The election was in many respects a referendum on the two-term president, whose popularity has plunged to the lowest levels since the 1930s, because of his administration's handling of the economy, Hurricane Katrina, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush has not been seen with McCain since May, and the president has made no public appearances since late last week.
McCain's top strategist acknowledged the team's difficulties as the candidate returned to Arizona from his final campaign stop in New Mexico.
"I think we did our absolute best in this campaign in really difficult circumstances. We had a -- we had some tough cards to play all the way through and we hung in there all the way," senior adviser Steve Schmidt told reporters.
He added: "I don't think there's another Republican the party could have nominated that could have made this a competitive race the way that John McCain did. . . . The president's approval numbers, you know, were not helpful in the race, but the party as a whole is unpopular with the American people, and that was a big albatross."
During a sometimes chaotic race, McCain promised voters that he would reform a broken and corrupted Washington and bring change that he said the American people demand. But his economic and national security proposals largely echoed Bush's policies, a charge that Obama made repeatedly.
Republicans watched yesterday as the electoral map turned blue in places where they have labored for a decade to cultivate a permanent, conservative voter base that would ensure presidential victories.
The party -- now clearly a minority one -- is left wondering whether the Democratic rout is the result of a coincidental marriage of a powerful personality and a terrible political and economic environment or if it signals a deeper change in voter patterns and beliefs that will make it difficult for them to recapture the White House for years.
"This election, particularly when combined with the '06 election, means the GOP is in serious trouble," said Peter Wehner, a former Bush White House aide. "To deny that would be to deny reality."
Wehner said the party can take some comfort in "the fact that I suspect the data will show that America remains, on the issues, a center-right nation. . . . It means the core political philosophy that defines the GOP is not out of sync with the country."
In a sign that Obama's race did not hold him back, he won as large a share of the white vote as any Democrat in the past two decades, although he still fell short of a majority. Preliminary exit polls showed him winning among 43 percent of white voters, while Sen. John F. Kerry won 41 percent in 2004 and Vice President Al Gore won 42 percent in 2000.
McCain styled himself as a maverick but ran a largely traditional Republican campaign that eroded his brand among independents, the majority of whom voted for Obama yesterday. Obama won 60 percent of self-described moderates, who had once formed the core of McCain's support.
Obama appeared to have made huge gains among Hispanic voters, earning about two-thirds of their support, according to exit polls. He also captured 95 percent of black voters. Obama also won a majority of women and took the support of 49 percent of men.
McCain appeared to have performed more poorly than his GOP predecessors, especially among young people. He earned about 30 percent of voters aged 18 to 29; in 2004, Bush captured 45 percent of that group.
The Obamas, with their two daughters in tow, voted yesterday morning at Beulah Shoesmith Elementary School, in their Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. (Controversial former radical William Ayers, whose relationship with Obama became a staple of McCain-Palin speeches, voted earlier at the same precinct but ignored reporters' questions about his ballot.)
Daughter Malia, 10, was by Michelle Obama's side when she cast her ballot, while Sasha, 7, watched her father vote.
"The journey ends, but voting with my daughters, that was a big deal," Obama said later. "I noticed that Michelle took a long time, though. I had to check to see who she was voting for."
The simple act of voting was a prosaic close to the longest and most expensive presidential election in U.S. history, one that fundamentally changed national politics in communication strategy and voter outreach.
Obama's unilateral decision to forgo public financing for his campaign may signal the end of that Watergate-era reform, as McCain found himself massively outspent.
By mid-October, Obama had reported raising nearly $600 million, including a record-shattering $150 million in September. Combined with money the Democratic National Committee spent during the general election, he spent nearly $745 million on his primary and general election campaigns.
The combined spending figure for McCain and the Republican Party was nearly $450 million by mid-October.
The general election campaign began with simple themes: Obama said McCain's candidacy represented nothing more than a continuation of the Bush administration, while McCain portrayed Obama as too inexperienced to lead a country involved in two wars and under the threat of terrorism.
McCain offered his years of experience and his maverick record of often bucking the leadership of his party as evidence of the kind of president he would be, and characterized Obama as a man of eloquent speeches but empty rhetoric.
McCain criticized Obama's summer tours of Afghanistan and Iraq as too little too late, and he mocked the lavish reception the Democrat received in the Middle East and Europe. McCain even ran an ad of a rally Obama held before 200,000 people in Berlin, with an announcer saying: "He's the biggest celebrity in the world."
Obama shored up his perceived weaknesses with Biden, a longtime senator fluent in foreign affairs and national policy but prone to gaffes. But the decision was well received, and Obama enjoyed a harmonious Democratic National Convention, where he was praised by his former rival for the nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).
He ended the convention with an acceptance speech before 75,000 at a football stadium in Denver, something no nominee had attempted since Kennedy in 1960.
Just a day later, McCain stepped on the Democrats' celebration with his selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whom he described as a fellow outsider who would "shake up Washington." From the moment she was introduced, Palin made an appeal to women, but her chief asset seemed to be reenergizing the conservative GOP base of the party that for years had been skeptical of McCain.
The weeks after the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., were the only ones in the long history of the campaign in which the party had enjoyed an advantage. But that ended as the nation's economy worsened.
When the financial meltdown on Wall Street began in mid-September, McCain's advisers winced as their candidate told an audience in Jacksonville, Fla., that the "fundamentals of the economy are sound." Just hours later in Orlando, the candidate declared the economy in "crisis."
Such trepidation did not serve McCain well -- at one point, as Congress dealt with a $700 billion rescue plan for Wall Street, he suspended his campaign to fly back to Washington -- and Obama seemed to find traction with voters by declaring his rival's actions "erratic."
Obama emerged as the Democratic nominee from the crucible of the longest-ever nomination fight.
But Obama stunned Sen. Clinton, and the nation, by repeatedly demolishing assumptions about his ability to raise money, his organizational strength and his ability to appeal to white voters. Those three factors came together in Iowa, as he won a convincing victory in the state's Democratic caucuses.
His onetime rival worked hard for his election and Clinton said last night: "We are celebrating an historic victory for the American people. This was a long and hard-fought campaign, but the result was well worth the wait."
Staff writers Michael Abramowitz and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.