Barack Obama made history when he defeated Senator John MCain in 2008 and became the first African-American president. The following article explores what his election meant to the country.

Nov. 8, 2008

Barack Obama, the son of a Black man from Kenya and a White woman from Kansas, has been elected President of the United States, a country whose Constitution had to be amended nearly 200 years ago in order for African Americans to vote.

“I had to pinch myself,” said U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), a national co-chairman of the Obama campaign. “When we started this race, people laughed at us. Now, we see Barack Obama, a man of color, become the President of the United States.”

AFRO Baltimore 2008-11-08 Vol 117 No 13 A1

Obama won a lopsided victory in the Electoral College Tuesday, defeating an older and more experienced John McCain by a 2 to 1 margin en route to becoming the first Democrat to win a majority of the popular vote since 1976. Obama became President-Elect by winning 95 percent of the Black vote, 68 percent of Latino ballots and 59 percent of voters 18 to 34 years old, according to a survey conducted by NBC and the Wall Street Journal.

Obama won as large a share of the White vote as any Democrat in the past two decades. He won 43 percent, compared to John F. Kerry, who won 41 percent in 2004 and Al Gore, who captured 42 percent in 2000.

Although the Constitution was amended in 1870 to allow Blacks to vote, it wasn’t until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that African Americans, especially those in the South, could vote without trickery or fear of retaliation.

With some election returns still trickling in Wednesday, Obama held a 338-161 lead over McCain in electoral votes.

McCain, in is concession speech before supporters in Phoenix, Ariz., summed up the results best. “The American people have spoken. And they have spoken clearly,” he said.

The first indication that McCain would have difficulty making inroads into Obama’s lead came at around 8:30 p.m. when Pennsylvania was called for the Democratic candidate by a 10-percentage point margin. The McCain campaign had said earlier that they had to win the state to have a viable chance at victory.

Ohio, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana and other states won by President Bush in 2004 were added to the Obama column, making McCain’s defeat inevitable.

As soon as the polls closed in California, Oregon and Washington State – 11 p.m., EST – all of the television networks projected Obama as the winner, causing thousands of supporters to erupt in cheers at an outdoor rally at Grant Park in Chicago.

For Obama, 47, the victory ended a journey that began nearly two years ago as he defeated some of the biggest names in politics along the way, including Hillary Clinton and McCain, a lionized Vietnam War hero.

According to exit interviews, nearly one in five voters who backed Bush in 2004 said they went for Obama.

That swing reflected a general discontent with the Republican Party, a brand tarnished under the last eight years of the Bush administration.

“After eight years of Bush and the Republican Party, there’s no way I’d vote for a Republican again,” said Keith Parrish, 51, as he walked into his polling station in Northeast Baltimore.

Even among Republicans that disgruntlement was palpable. Democrats outpaced the GOP in voter registration. According to polls, the number of voters who identified themselves as Republican dropped to 31 percent compared to 40 percent Democrats. And despite the appeal of McCain’s vice presidential running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, two in 10 conservatives backed Obama.

“I’m a born-again Christian and I believe the Republican Party supports issues that are important to us like pro-life,” said Ged Valatis, 52, a White, evangelical missionary of his reasons for supporting McCain as he walked into Brehms Lane Elementary School in Baltimore. But, he added, “It was a struggle. I like Obama too.”

Perhaps a little too late in the race, McCain tried to distance himself from Bush, asserting in his final debate with Obama: “I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.”

But, by his own admission, McCain had voted with Bush 90 percent of time in the most recent session of Congress. And when exit pollsters asked voters whether McCain would represent a change from Bush, half of them replied no. Of those voters, nine of 10 voted for Obama.

Among younger voters ages 18-25, Obama was a fresh new face and voice that drew them out in record numbers. According to CIRCLE, a non-partisan organization that researches the civic engagement of American youth, young voters sided 68-30 percent with Obama – the largest share of the youth vote obtained by any candidate since exit polls began reporting results by age in 1976.

For African Americans, Obama’s election became a source of pride.

“I was in the voting booth crying because it hit me so hard that a Black man could become our President,” said Jackson, the public relations consultant. “I had to continuously wipe my eyes to finish my ballot but when I walked out that door I had my head held high and my fist higher, yelling ‘O for Change! O for Change!’”

Obama’s calm assurance and intellectual approach – qualities that many pundits decried – also seemed to give him the edge in voters’ opinions of who would best bolster the economy.

For example, in Ohio, a state that was crippled by the loss of manufacturing jobs, 61 percent of voters said the economy was the most important issue and of those, 55 percent voted for Obama.

“He seems to be a very thoughtful, confident and centered person,” said Bill Millen, 63, a Presbyterian minister, who voted for Obama at his Waverly polling place. “While his opponent was all over the place grasping at straws, he was very consistent. I feel very good with him.”

For many voters, that was not always the case. Throughout the primaries and even in the general election, some seemed skittish about entrusting their future to a little-known, first-term Senator with a funny name. And many naysayers doubted Obama’s ability to overcome those reservations, given this country’s racial history. But he proved them wrong.

“This campaign is one people are going to be studying for a long time,” said Dianne Pinderhughes, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. “His campaign is evidence of his ability to build infrastructure from the ground up and manage it without conflict. It’s not what you see in administrative agencies in Washington.”

Obama’s campaign was built on a model of grassroots organizing, with which he was familiar from his days working with jobless factory workers on the South Side of Chicago.

Even as the former Illinois Senator employed old-fashioned organization, he twinned it with 21st century technology.

“He’s reinvented the use of the Internet when it comes to campaign organizing,” Congressman Cummings said.

Obama capitalized on his Web hub to raise what some analysts predict will total more than $700 million in campaign donations, which allowed him to pursue his 50 state strategy – setting up numerous field offices, running ads and deploying an army of volunteers to locales where Democrats didn’t usually campaign.

The website also served as a “central switchboard” that helped maintain organization, unity and message discipline within the campaign, Pinderhughes said.

Former Maryland State Sen. Larry Young can be forgiven if he looks sleepy this week.

“I just couldn’t go to sleep last night,” he said. “I’m just so happy we’ll be able to send Bush back to Texas I don’t know what to do. Now that Bush has to go back to Texas, Obama can go to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. on the backs of Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. I have no apology to make. If some of us cry , it will be alright.”


Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO