Barack Obama’s sweeping victory as president of the United States sends him to the White House to face what may be the worst national financial crisis since the time of Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932.
Obama won on his own terms, strategically and symbolically. He rolled up a series of contested states, from Colorado to Virginia, long out of Democratic reach. And his victory reflected the accuracy of his vision of a reshaped country. Racism, much discussed, turned out to be a footnote, and African-American turnout was not unusually high. Instead, Obama drew his strength from an array of racially mixed, growing areas around cities like Orlando, Washington, Indianapolis, and Columbus on his way to at least 334 electoral votes.
“Even as we celebrate tonight we know that the challenges tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime: two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century,” Obama told a crowd of more than 100,000 in Chicago’s Grant Park.
The assembled crowd had been strangely silent through the evening, even as Obama shut the door for McCain by winning New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, and even after his victory in Ohio pointed toward a landslide, seemingly unwilling to accept or believe the impending victory.
Only at 11:00 p.m., when CNN declared that Obama had surpassed 270 electoral votes, did the crowd roar in approval.
"This victory alone is not the change we seek — it is only the chance to make that change," Obama said, standing between two bulletproof glass walls.
McCain, speaking in a somber concession speech outside the Phoenix hotel where he married his wife, declared that he had done what he could.
"I don't know what more we could have done to try to win this election," he said.
Calling Obama "my president," McCain vowed to work with him to help repair a nation facing profound challenges at home and abroad.
"These are difficult times for our country, and I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face," McCain said.
After booing Obama's name and offering a few jeers, the crowd came to recognize the history in the evening when McCain paid tribute to the nation's first black president by recalling his own favorite commander-in-chief.
"A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt's invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters," McCain recalled. "America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States."
For the first time, claps and even a few cheers were heard from the dejected crowd.
Obama’s win came with Democratic gains in the Senate and House, though his broad victory — he swept swing states ranging from Indiana to Ohio to Virginia — was perhaps even more dramatic than his party’s success in congressional races. Obama and other Democratic leaders quickly signaled their awareness of the risk of overreaching, with Obama avoiding any claim of partisan victory, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid going further.
"This is a mandate to get along, to get something done in a bipartisan way. This is not a mandate for a political party or an ideology,” Reid told Politico.
As grand as the symbolism of Obama’s victory was, it was also a victory for his steady, corporate campaign management. The campaign’s early decision to play on a more ambitious map than other Democratic nominees was the source of his mandate. And the result closely mirrored the PowerPoint presentation his campaign manager, David Plouffe, pitched to sometimes-skeptical audiences of reporters and donors.
McCain’s campaign blamed larger forces for their candidate’s defeat.
“We were crushed by circumstance,” communications director Jill Hazelbaker said after McCain’s speech. “The economic crisis was a pivotal point in this race.”
External factors aside, McCain and his campaign also lagged far behind Obama in every key metric — money, organization, discipline — and failed to embrace Obama's organizational model or the technology it borrowed from the private sector.
Earlier campaigns had celebrated their technological prowess, but in Obama’s cutting-edge campaign, new political technology was implemented and came of age, evidenced by its vaunted fundraising machine and its “Houdini” computer system, which enabled the campaign as late as Tuesday afternoon to identify and bring to the polls a last wave of supporters who hadn’t yet voted.
The coalition Obama assembled proved as modern as the technology his campaign employed.
In his clear-cut victory, Obama became the first Democrat to win a majority of American votes since Jimmy Carter’s 1976 election. He won states just months ago thought to be impregnable to his party, places that just four years ago went for President Bush by double-digits: Virginia, Indiana, and North Carolina among them.
Indeed, Obama won in all regions of the country but the Deep South, piling up big wins in the perennial Democratic bulwarks on both coasts and making deep inroads into New South states, the industrial and agricultural heartland and the fast-growing Rocky Mountain West.
But perhaps most spectacularly, he found victory with a multiracial coalition that has the makings of a formidable political base of power.
If his was the first 21st century campaign, his victory was powered by a new face of America: comprised of all ethnicities, hailing mostly from cities and suburbs, largely under 40 years old, and among all income classes.
As they emphatically proved by obliterating the presidential color line, many of these voters are not guided by traditional cultural attachment to race, religion or region.
What makes his victory so resounding, and so daunting for Republicans, was that he combined support from African-Americans, Jews, and young whites with other key groups. He also reversed President Bush’s advances with Hispanic voters.
Further, and even more worrisome for the GOP, Obama was dominant among self-described “moderate” voters, a 60 percent swath of Americans larger than either self-described liberals or conservatives.
This 21st century coalition allowed Obama to blow out McCain in cities and suburbs where Bush had narrowly won or lost by smaller margins four years ago, and to pull off narrow wins in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Indiana and Ohio.
He ran up huge margins in heavily-black cities and counties in each, but was able to edge out McCain thanks to big wins in populous, racially-mixed localities like Northern Virginia's Fairfax County (59 percent), Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County (62 percent), Orlando’s Orange County (59 percent), Indianapolis’s Marion County (64 percent) and Columbus’s Franklin County (59 percent).
The coalition underscored the theme that made Obama famous in 2004, and one that he returned to in his victory speech, citing his support from “young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled — Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America."