The United States presidential election of 2008 was the 56th quadrennial presidential election. It was held on Tuesday, November 4, 2008. Democratic Party nominees Barack Obama, a U.S. Senator from Illinois, and his running mate Joe Biden, a long-time U.S. Senator from Delaware, defeated Republican Party nominees John McCain, a long-time and current U.S. Senator from Arizona, and his running mate Sarah Palin, a Governor of Alaska. Obama became the first African American ever to be elected president of the United States, and Joe Biden became the first Roman Catholic ever elected vice president.
The incumbent president, George W. Bush, of the Republican Party, was ineligible to be elected to a third term due to term limits in the Twenty-second Amendment to the United States Constitution. McCain secured the Republican nomination by March 2008, but the Democratic nomination was marked by a sharp contest between Obama and initial front-runner Senator Hillary Clinton, with Obama not securing the nomination until early June. Early campaigning had focused heavily on the Iraq War and the unpopularity of outgoing Republican President George W. Bush, but all candidates focused on domestic concerns as well, which grew more prominent as the economy experienced the onset of the Great Recession and a major financial crisis that peaked in September 2008.
Obama would go on to win a decisive victory over McCain, winning both the popular vote and the electoral college, with 365 electoral votes to McCain's 173; he received the largest percentage of the popular vote for a Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Obama's total vote amount of 69.5 million votes is the highest number ever won by a presidential candidate. Obama's successes in obtaining a major party's nomination and winning the general election were both firsts for the African American community. Although Hillary Clinton did not win the Democratic nomination, she was the first woman to win a major American party's presidential primary for the purposes of delegate selection when she won the primary in New Hampshire on January 8. Eight years later, Clinton went on to win the Democratic nomination, but she lost the 2016 general election to Republican Donald Trump. She also was the first woman to be an American presidential candidate in every primary and caucus in every state. Similarly, Sarah Palin became the first woman to appear on a Republican presidential ticket, and the second woman overall to appear on a major party's presidential ticket (after Geraldine Ferraro in 1984).
This was also the first election in which neither candidate was born in the contiguous United States. Obama was born in Hawaii and McCain was born at Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone. McCain is also currently the only incumbent US Senator who has previously won a major party presidential nomination (a distinction he has held since John Kerry's 2013 resignation).
As of 2017, this is the last time Nebraska (2nd congressional district only), Indiana, and North Carolina voted for the Democratic candidate. This election also became the first time that Missouri backed the losing candidate since 1956, the first time Kentucky & Tennessee did so since 1960, and the first time Arkansas and Louisiana did so since 1968.
In 2004, President George W. Bush won reelection, defeating the Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry. After Republican pickups in the House and Senate in the 2004 elections, Republicans maintained control of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government.
Bush's approval ratings had been slowly declining from their high point of almost 90% after the September 11 attacks, and they barely reached 50% by his reelection. Although Bush was reelected with a larger Electoral College margin than in 2000, during his second term, Bush's approval rating dropped more quickly, with the Iraq War and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 being most detrimental to the public's perception of his job performance.
By September 2006, Bush's approval rating was below 40%, and in the November United States Congressional elections 2006, Democrats gained the majority in both houses. Bush's approval ratings dropped for the last two years in office to the 25–37% range.
President George W. Bush, a Republican and former Governor of Texas, was ineligible to seek reelection to a third term due to restrictions of the Twenty-Second Amendment. In accordance with Section I of the Twentieth Amendment, his term expired at 12:00 noon EST on January 20, 2009.
In the United States, there are two major political parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. There are also several minor parties, usually called third parties, though most media and public focus is on the two major parties.
Each major party hosts candidates who go through a nomination process to determine the presidential nominee for that party. The nomination process consists of primaries and caucuses, held by the 50 states, as well as Guam, Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands. The winner of each of these primary elections usually receives delegates proportional to the percentage of the popular vote that candidate received in each state. In the Democratic Party, high-ranking party members known as superdelegates each receive one vote in the convention. Whichever candidate has the majority of the delegates at the end of the primary elections is designated the presumptive nominee until he or she is formally nominated and endorsed for the presidency by his or her political party. This is done by the aforementioned delegates for each party.
Democratic Party nomination
|Barack Obama||Joe Biden|
|for President||for Vice President|
|U.S. Senator from Illinois|
|U.S. Senator from Delaware|
- Hillary Clinton, U.S. Senator from New York (withdrew on June 7, 2008 and endorsed Barack Obama)
- John Edwards, former U.S. Senator from North Carolina (withdrew on January 30, 2008 and endorsed Barack Obama)
- Bill Richardson, Governor of New Mexico (withdrew on January 10, 2008 and endorsed Barack Obama)
- Dennis Kucinich, U.S. Representative from Ohio (withdrew on January 24, 2008 and endorsed Barack Obama)
- Joe Biden, U.S. Senator from Delaware (withdrew on January 3, 2008 and endorsed Barack Obama)
- Mike Gravel, former U.S. Senator from Alaska (withdrew on March 25, 2008 to run for the Libertarian Party nomination. After losing the nomination, he endorsed Jesse Johnson)
- Christopher Dodd, U.S. Senator from Connecticut (withdrew on January 3, 2008 and endorsed Barack Obama)
- Evan Bayh, U.S. Senator from Indiana (withdrew on December 15, 2007 and endorsed Hillary Clinton. He later endorsed Barack Obama)
- Tom Vilsack, former Governor of Iowa (withdrew on February 23, 2007 and endorsed Hillary Clinton. He later endorsed Barack Obama)
Before the primaries
Media speculation had begun almost immediately after the results of the 2004 presidential election were released. In the 2006 midterm elections, the Democrats regained majorities in both houses of the U.S. Congress. Early polls taken before anyone had announced a candidacy had shown Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as the most popular potential Democratic candidates. Nevertheless, the media speculated on several other candidates, including Al Gore, the runner-up in the 2000 election; John Kerry, the runner-up in the 2004 election; John Edwards, Kerry's running mate in 2004; Senator from Delaware Joe Biden; New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson; Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack; and Indiana Senator Evan Bayh.
Edwards was one of the first to formally announce his candidacy for the presidency, on December 28, 2006. This run would be his second attempt at the presidency. Clinton announced intentions to run in the Democratic primaries on January 20, 2007. Obama announced his candidacy on February 10 in his home state of Illinois. None of the candidates received a significant bounce in their poll numbers after their official announcements. Through most of 2007, even after it was evident that Al Gore would not run, he and Edwards each hovered between the third and fourth place spots in the polls behind Clinton and Obama.
"Front-runner" status is dependent on the news agency reporting, and by October 2007, the consensus listed the three aforementioned candidates as leading the pack after several debate performances. The Washington Post listed Clinton, Edwards, and Obama as the front runners, "leading in polls and fundraising and well ahead of the other major candidates." Clinton led in nearly all nationwide opinion polling until January 2008.
Actor, comedian, and future Late Show host Stephen Colbert mounted his own campaign for the nomination in his home state of South Carolina. He announced his run for president on his former talk show, The Colbert Report, on October 16, 2007. Public Opinion Strategies conducted a poll and found Colbert nationally in fifth place at 2.3% behind Biden's 2.7%.
Early primaries and caucuses
The early primaries and caucuses were considered the most critical of nomination processes. Most candidates who lacked support dropped out after doing so poorly in the Iowa caucuses and in the New Hampshire primary, and the results from those states often shifted national preferences, according to historical polling data. The states that hold early primaries and caucuses were, chronologically, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. In 2008, Florida and Michigan moved their primaries into January against the Democratic Party's rules, and their results were discounted and disputed until after the rest of the contests took place.
Early in the year, the support for Barack Obama started to increase in the polls, and he passed Clinton for the top spot in Iowa; he ended up winning the caucus in that state, with John Edwards coming in second and Clinton in third. Obama's win was fueled mostly by first time caucus-goers and Independents and showed voters viewed him as the "candidate of change." Iowa has since been viewed as the state that jump-started Obama's campaign and set him on track to win both the nomination and the presidency. After the Iowa caucus, Joe Biden and Christopher Dodd withdrew from the nomination contest.
Obama became the new front runner in New Hampshire, when his poll numbers skyrocketed after his Iowa victory The Clinton campaign was struggling after a huge loss in Iowa and no strategy beyond the early primaries and caucuses. According to The Vancouver Sun, Campaign strategists had "mapped a victory scenario that envisioned the former first lady wrapping up the Democratic presidential nomination by Super Tuesday on Feb. 5." In what is considered a turning point for her campaign, Clinton had a strong performance at the Saint Anselm College, ABC, and Facebook debates several days before the New Hampshire primary as well as an emotional interview in a public broadcast live on TV. Clinton won that primary by 2% of the vote, contrary to the predictions of pollsters who consistently had her trailing Obama for a few days up to the primary date. Clinton's win was the first time a woman had ever won a major American party's presidential primary for the purposes of delegate selection.
On January 30, 2008, after placing in third in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, Edwards announced that he was suspending his campaign for the presidency, but he did not initially endorse any remaining candidates.
Super Tuesday occurred on February 5, 2008, during which the largest-ever number of simultaneous state primary elections was held. Super Tuesday ended up leaving the Democrats in a virtual tie, with Obama amassing 847 delegates to Clinton's 834 from the 23 states that held Democratic primaries.
Earlier, on February 3 at the University of California, Los Angeles, celebrities Oprah Winfrey, Caroline Kennedy, and Stevie Wonder, among others, made appearances to show support for Obama in a rally led by his wife, Michelle Obama. In addition, then-Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger's wife at the time, Maria Shriver, endorsed Obama. California was one of the Super Tuesday states that could provide a large number of delegates to the candidates. Obama trailed in the California polling by an average of 6.0% before the primary; he ended up losing that state by 8.3% of the vote. Some analysts cited a large "Latino" turnout that voted for Clinton as the deciding factor.
The Louisiana, Nebraska, Hawaii, Wisconsin, U.S. Virgin Islands, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia primaries and the Washington and Maine caucuses all took place after Super Tuesday in February. Obama won all of them, giving him 10 consecutive victories after Super Tuesday.
Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania
On March 4, Hillary Clinton carried Ohio and Rhode Island in the Democratic primaries; some considered these wins, especially Ohio, a "surprise upset" by 10%, although she did lead in the polling averages in both states. She also carried the primary in Texas, but Obama won the Texas caucuses held the same day and netted more delegates from the state than Clinton.
Only one state held a primary in April. This was Pennsylvania, on April 22. Although Obama made a strong effort to win Pennsylvania, Hillary Clinton won that primary by nearly 10%, with approximately 55% of the vote. Obama had outspent Clinton three to one in Pennsylvania, but his comment at a San Francisco fundraiser that small-town Americans "cling" to guns and religion drew sharp criticism from the Clinton campaign and may have hurt his chances in the Keystone State. In addition, Clinton had several advantages in Pennsylvania. Throughout the primary process, she relied on the support of older, white, working class voters. Pennsylvania held a closed primary, which means that only registered Democrats could vote, and, according to Ron Elving of NPR, the established Democratic electorate "was older, whiter, more Catholic and more working-class than in most of the primaries to date." After Pennsylvania, Obama had a higher number of delegates and popular votes than Clinton did and was still in a stronger position to win the nomination. Clinton, however, had received the endorsement of more superdelegates than Obama.
Indiana and North Carolina
On May 6, North Carolina and Indiana held their Democratic presidential primaries. Clinton and Obama campaigned aggressively there before the voting took place. The candidates acknowledged the importance of these primaries and said they were turning point states that could make or break either of their campaigns. Polling had shown Obama a few points ahead in North Carolina and Clinton similarly leading in Indiana. In the actual results, Obama outperformed the polls by several points in both states, winning by a significant margin in North Carolina and losing by only 1.1% in Indiana (50.56% to 49.44%). After these primaries, most pundits declared that it had become "increasingly improbable," if not impossible, for Clinton to win the nomination. The small win in Indiana barely kept her campaign alive for the next month. Although she did manage to win the majority of the remaining primaries and delegates, it was not enough to overcome Obama's substantial delegate lead.
Scandal surrounded the primary in Indiana because a Democratic State Committee member and county chair led a "forgery ring" to get all of the Democratic candidates on the ballot. This Democratic State Committee member, Owen "Butch" Morgan was convicted of felonies regarding the forgeries and sentenced to a year in prison, community corrections, and probation.
Florida and Michigan
During late 2007, the two parties adopted rules against states' moving their primaries to an earlier date in the year. For the Republicans, the penalty for this violation was supposed to be the loss of half the state party's delegates to the convention. The Democratic penalty was the complete exclusion from the national convention of delegates from states that broke these rules. The Democratic Party allowed only four states to hold elections before February 5, 2008. Initially, the Democratic leadership said it would strip all delegates from Florida and Michigan, which had moved their primaries into January. In addition, all major Democratic candidates agreed officially not to campaign in Florida or Michigan, and Edwards and Obama removed their names from the Michigan ballot. Clinton won a majority of delegates and popular votes from both states (though 40% voted uncommitted in Michigan) and subsequently led a fight to seat all the Florida and Michigan delegates.
Political columnist Christopher Weber noted that while her action was self-serving, it was also "pragmatic to forestall" Florida or Michigan voters becoming so disaffected they did not vote for Democrats in the general election. There was some speculation that the fight over the delegates could last until the convention in August. On May 31, 2008, the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the Democratic Party reached a compromise on the Florida and Michigan delegate situation. The committee decided to seat delegate from Michigan and Florida at the convention in August, but to only award each a half-vote.
Clinching the nomination
The major political party nomination process (technically) continues through June of an election year. In previous cycles, the candidates were effectively chosen by the end of the primaries held in March, but, in this cycle, however, Barack Obama did not win enough delegates to secure the nomination until June 3, after a 17-month campaign against Hillary Clinton. He had a wide lead in states won, while Clinton had won majorities in several of the larger states. Now, because a form of proportional representation and popular vote decided Democratic state delegate contests, numbers were close between Clinton and Obama. By May, Clinton claimed to hold a lead in the popular vote, but the Associated Press found that her numbers were "accurate only" in one close scenario.
In June, after the last of the primaries had taken place, Obama secured the Democratic nomination for President, with the help of multiple super delegate endorsements (most of the super delegates had refused to declare their support for either candidate until the primaries were completed). He was the first African American to win the nomination of a major political party in the United States. For several days, Clinton refused to concede the race, although she signaled her presidential campaign was ending in a post-primary speech on June 3 in her home state of New York. She finally conceded the nomination to Obama on June 7. She pledged her full support to the presumptive nominee and vowed to do everything she could to help him get elected.
Republican Party nomination
Not only was the 2008 election the first time since 1952 that neither the incumbent president nor the incumbent vice president was a candidate in the general election, but it was also the first time since the 1928 election that neither sought his party's nomination for president; as Bush was term-limited from seeking another nomination, the unique aspect was Vice President Cheney's decision not to seek the Republican nomination. This left the Republican field just as open to a wide field of new candidates as the Democratic field.
|John McCain||Sarah Palin|
|for President||for Vice President|
Governor of Alaska
- Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts (withdrew on February 7, 2008 and endorsed John McCain)
- Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas (withdrew on March 4, 2008 and endorsed John McCain)
- Ron Paul, U.S. Representative from Texas (withdrew on June 12, 2008 and endorsed Chuck Baldwin)
- Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York City (withdrew on January 30, 2008 and endorsed John McCain)
- Fred Thompson, former U.S. Senator from Tennessee (withdrew on January 22, 2008 and endorsed John McCain)
- Alan Keyes, former U.S. ECOSOC Ambassador from Maryland (withdrew on April 15, 2008 to run for the Constitution Party nomination. After losing that nomination, he ran as the America's Independent Party nominee.)
- Duncan Hunter, U.S. Representative from California (withdrew on January 19, 2008 and endorsed Mike Huckabee. He later endorsed John McCain)
- Tom Tancredo, U.S. Representative from Colorado (withdrew on December 20, 2007 and endorsed Mitt Romney. He later endorsed John McCain)
- Sam Brownback, U.S. Senator from Kansas (withdrew on October 18, 2007 and endorsed John McCain)
- Tommy Thompson, former United States Secretary of Health and Human Services (withdrew on August 12, 2007 and endorsed Rudy Giuliani. He later endorsed John McCain)
- Jim Gilmore, former Governor of Virginia (withdrew on July 14, 2007 and endorsed John McCain)
Before the primaries
Immediately after the 2006 midterm elections, media pundits began speculating, as they did about the Democrats, about potential Republican candidates for President in 2008. In November 2006, Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani led in the polls, followed closely by Arizona Senator John McCain. The media speculated that Giuliani's pro-choice stance on abortion and McCain's age and support of the unpopular Iraq War would be detriments to their candidacies. Giuliani remained the frontrunner in the polls throughout most of 2007, with McCain and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson fighting for second place. Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Giuliani, Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and Texas Representative Ron Paul announced their candidacies on January 28, February 5, February 13, and March 12, respectively. McCain officially announced his candidacy on March 1, 2007, after several informal announcements. In the third quarter of 2007, the top four GOP (Republican) fundraisers were Romney, Giuliani, Thompson, and Ron Paul. MSNBC's Chuck Todd christened Giuliani and John McCain the front runners after the second Republican presidential debate in early 2007.
Huckabee, winner of Iowa, had little to no money and hoped for at least a third-place finish in New Hampshire. McCain eventually displaced Rudy Giuliani and Romney as the front runner in New Hampshire. McCain staged a turnaround victory, having been written off by the pundits and polling in single digits less than a month before the race.
With the Republicans stripping Michigan and Florida of half their delegates for moving their primaries into January 2008 against party rules, the race for the nomination was based there. McCain meanwhile managed a small victory over Huckabee in South Carolina, setting him up for a larger and more important victory over Romney in Florida, which held a closed primary on January 29. By this time, after several scandals, no success in the early primaries, and a third-place finish in Florida, Giuliani conceded from the nomination race and endorsed John McCain the next day.
McCain was also endorsed in February by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger before the California primary took place on Super Tuesday. This gave him a significant boost in the polls for the state's primary, which awarded the greatest number of delegates of all the states. On Super Tuesday, McCain won his home state of Arizona, taking all 53 delegates. He also won nearly all of California's 173 delegates, the largest of the Super Tuesday prizes. McCain also scored wins in seven other states, picking up 574 delegates. Huckabee was the "surprise performer", winning 5 states and 218 delegates. Romney won 7 states and 231 delegates. Two days later, Romney suspended his presidential campaign, saying that if he stayed in the race, he would "forestall the launch of a national campaign and be making it easier for Senator Clinton or Obama to win". His departure left Huckabee and Paul as McCain's only major challengers in the remaining primaries and caucuses. Romney endorsed McCain on February 14.
Louisiana, the District of Columbia, Kansas, Wisconsin, and Washington held primaries in February after Super Tuesday. Despite McCain picking up big victories, Huckabee won Louisiana and Kansas. McCain narrowly carried the Washington caucuses over Huckabee and Paul, who amassed a large showing. The Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico closed February for the Republicans. After Super Tuesday, John McCain had become the clear front runner, but by the end of February, he still had not acquired enough delegates to secure the nomination. In March, John McCain clinched the Republican nomination after sweeping all four primaries, Texas, Ohio, Vermont, and Rhode Island, putting him over the top of the 1,191 delegates required to win the GOP nomination. Mike Huckabee then conceded the race to McCain, leaving Ron Paul, who had just 16 delegates, as his only remaining opponent. Romney would eventually become the Republican presidential nominee 4 years later, which he then lost to Barack Obama.
Along with the Democratic and Republican parties, three other parties nominated candidates with ballot access in enough states to win the minimum 270 electoral votes needed to win the election. These were the Constitution Party, the Green Party, and the Libertarian Party. In addition, independent candidate Ralph Nader ran his own campaign.
The Constitution Party nominated writer, pastor, and conservative talk show host Chuck Baldwin for President, and attorney Darrell Castle from Tennessee for Vice President. While campaigning, Baldwin voiced his opposition to the Iraq war, the Sixteenth Amendment, Roe v. Wade, the IRS, and the Federal Reserve.
The Green Party nominated former Democratic Representative Cynthia McKinney from Georgia for President, and political activist Rosa Clemente from New York for Vice President. McKinney campaigned on a platform that supported single-payer universal health care, the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, reparations for African Americans, and the creation of a Department of Peace.
The Libertarian Party nominated former Republican Representative Bob Barr from Georgia for President, and his former rival for the Libertarian nomination Wayne Allyn Root from Nevada, for Vice President. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barr advocated a reworking or abolition of the income tax and opposed the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act.
- April 23–26, 2008: 2008 Constitution Party National Convention held in Kansas City, Missouri.
- May 23–26, 2008: 2008 Libertarian National Convention, held in Denver, Colorado.
- July 10–13, 2008: 2008 Green Party National Convention, held in Chicago, Illinois.
- August 25–28, 2008: 2008 Democratic National Convention, held in Denver, Colorado.
- September 1–4, 2008: 2008 Republican National Convention, held in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
General election campaign
An issue in the election was Obama's possible, and then actual, nomination by the Democratic Party. On August 28, 2008, when Obama formally accepted the Democratic nomination for President, he became the first African American to be nominated for President by a major political party. The television audiences for both McCain's and Obama's acceptance speeches broke records, according to Nielsen ratings.
The unpopular war in Iraq was a key issue during the campaign before the economic crisis. John McCain supported the war while Barack Obama opposed it (Obama's early and strong opposition to the war helped him stand out against the other Democratic candidates during the primaries, as well as stand out to a war-weary electorate during the general campaign). Though McCain meant it as a peacetime presence like the United States maintained in Germany and Japan after World War II, his statement that the United States could be in Iraq for as much as the next 50 to 100 years would prove costly. Obama used it against him as part of his strategy to tie him to the unpopular President Bush.
John McCain's support for the troop 'surge' employed by General David Petraeus, which was one of several factors credited with improving the security situation in Iraq, may have boosted McCain's stance on the issue in voters' minds. McCain (who supported the invasion) argued that his support for the successful surge showed his superior judgment. However, Obama was quick to remind voters that there would have been no need for a "surge" had there been no war at all, thus questioning McCain's judgment.
George W. Bush had become increasingly unpopular by 2006. Polls consistently showed that his approval ratings among American voters had averaged around 30 percent. In March 2008, Bush endorsed McCain at the White House, but Bush did not make a single appearance for McCain during the campaign. Bush appeared at the 2008 GOP convention only through a live video broadcast. He chose not to appear in person due to disaster events in the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav. Although he supported the war in Iraq, McCain made an effort to show that he had disagreed with Bush on many other key issues such as climate change. During the entire general election campaign, Obama countered by pointing out in ads and at numerous campaign rallies that McCain had claimed in an interview that he voted with Bush 90% of the time, and congressional voting records supported this for the years Bush was in office.
Change vs. experience
Before the Democratic primaries began, the dichotomy of change versus experience had already become a common theme in the presidential campaign, with Senator Hillary Clinton positioning herself as the candidate with experience and Obama embracing the characterization as the candidate most able to bring change to Washington. Before the official launch of her campaign, aides for Clinton were already planning to position her as the 'change' candidate, as strategist Mark Penn made clear in an October 2006 memo titled "The Plan." In his presidential run announcement, Obama framed his candidacy by emphasizing that "Washington must change." In response to this, Clinton adopted her experience as a major campaign theme. By early and mid-2007, polls regularly found voters identifying Clinton as the more experienced candidate and Obama as the "fresh" or "new" candidate. Exit polls on Super Tuesday found that Obama won voters who thought that the ability to bring change was the most important quality in a candidate, who made up a majority of the Democratic electorate. By a margin of about 2-1, Clinton was able to make up for this deficiency by an almost total domination among voters who thought experience was the most important quality. These margins generally remained the same until Obama clinched the Democratic nomination on June 3.
Similar to Senator Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, one of the more widely leveled charges against McCain was the issue of his age—he turned 72 in August and there was widespread concern about the idea of electing a man who would be 80 years old if he completed two full terms in office (the oldest president, Ronald Reagan, had been a month shy of 78 when he left office in January 1989). In addition, McCain suffered from the ill effects of his captivity in North Vietnam and reportedly had difficulty lifting his arms above his head. His age in particular was considered a liability against the youthful Senator Obama, who was the first Generation Xer to run for president on a major party ticket. McCain for comparison was born before World War II and belonged to the generation preceding the baby boomers. Much like Bob Dole, McCain attempted to counter these charges by releasing all of his medical records, something Obama did not do. McCain's wife Cindy dismissed concerns about his health by arguing that "We went hiking the Grand Canyon last summer and [John] did great and had no trouble keeping up with us." McCain also appeared at several campaign stops with his still-active 95-year-old mother. In a speech on the House floor, Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha criticized McCain's age by saying "Seven presidents have come and gone since I've been in Congress, and I saw the toll the job took on each one of them." If elected, McCain would have been the first, and only, President born in the decade of the 1930s.
Like the Clinton campaign in 1996, Obama avoided discussing McCain's age directly, instead preferring to simply call his ideas and message "old" and "old hat". He also made a strong appeal to youth voters and back during his primary contest with Hillary Clinton, had stated "When I watched the feud between the Clintons and [Newt Gingrich] unfold during the 1990s, I was reminded of old quarrels started on college campuses long ago. It's time for a new generation to take over." Obama's active use of a Blackberry and other modern technology also stood in contrast to the Arizona Senator's admission that he did not use a computer or a cell phone. McCain's service in Vietnam, while marketable to baby boomers, was referred to as "unimportant" to younger voters.
Obama promised "universal health care, full employment, a green America, and an America respected instead of feared by its enemies".
He used new media to "form a bond with his supporters" which helped him "appeal to the youth audience's need to feel special, in-the-know, empowered and special". This was best displayed in his text message announcement of Joe Biden as the vice-presidential candidate. He has also declared, in his book The Audacity of Hope, that he did not experience a religious upbringing. Rather he developed his faith due to the church's ability to motivate social change. Bowdern wrote, "This is best exemplified in his "50 state strategy", meaning that he campaigned in states that historically would never vote for a Democrat. The 2008 presidential election saw a large youth turn out, up to 51%."
John McCain quickly adopted similar campaign themes against Obama at the start of the general election campaign. Polls regularly found the general electorate as a whole divided more evenly between 'change' and 'experience' as candidate qualities than the Democratic primary electorate, which split in favor of 'change' by a nearly 2-1 margin. Advantages for McCain and Obama on experience and the ability to bring change, respectively, remained steady through the November 4 election. However, final pre-election polling found that voters considered Obama's inexperience less of an impediment than McCain's association with sitting President George W. Bush, an association which was rhetorically framed by the Obama campaign throughout the election season as "more of the same".
McCain appeared to undercut his line of attack by picking first-term Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate. Palin had been governor only since 2006, and before that had been a council member and mayor of Wasilla. The choice of Palin was controversial, however it appeared to solve two pressing concerns—McCain's age and health since a youthful vice president would succeed him to office if he died or became incapacitated, and appealing to right-wing conservatives, a group that had been comparatively unmoved by McCain. Palin also came off as more down-to-earth and relatable to average Americans than McCain, widely tarbrushed as a "Beltway insider". However, media interviews suggested that Palin lacked knowledge on certain key issues, and they cast doubt among many voters about her qualifications to be Vice President or President. In this regard, her inexperience was also a liability when McCain's age and health were factored in—there was a higher-than-normal probability of Palin succeeding to the presidency and many moderates and independents chafed at this idea. "One 72 year old heartbeat away from the presidency" became a popular anti-GOP slogan. Late night TV host David Letterman jokingly referred to Palin as resembling "a slutty flight attendant" and even Obama himself on a September 9 speech referred to the Alaska governor as "the equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig". She also came under attack on everything from her 17-year-old daughter giving birth to a child out of wedlock to actively participating in hunting moose and other animals. Because of Palin's conservative views, there was also concern that she would alienate independents and moderates, two groups that pundits observed McCain would need to win the election.
Polls taken in the last few months of the presidential campaign and exit polls conducted on Election Day showed the economy as the top concern for voters. In the fall of 2008, many news sources were reporting that the economy was suffering its most serious downturn since the Great Depression. During this period, John McCain's election prospects fell with several politically costly comments about the economy.
On August 20, John McCain said in an interview with Politico that he was uncertain how many houses he and his wife, Cindy, owned; "I think—I'll have my staff get to you," he told the media outlet. Both on the stump and in Obama's political ad, "Seven", the gaffe was used to portray McCain as somebody unable to relate to the concerns of ordinary Americans. This out-of-touch image was further cultivated when, on September 15, the day of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, at a morning rally in Jacksonville, Florida, McCain declared that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong," despite what he described as "tremendous turmoil in our financial markets and Wall Street." With the perception among voters to the contrary, the comment appeared to cost McCain politically.
On September 24, 2008, after the onset of the 2008 global financial crisis, McCain announced that he was suspending his campaign to return to Washington so he could help craft a $700 billion bailout package for the troubled financial industry, and he stated that he would not debate Obama until Congress passed the bailout bill. Despite this decision, McCain was portrayed as somebody not playing a significant role in the negotiations for the first version of the bill, which fell short of passage in the House. He eventually decided to attend the first presidential debate on September 26, despite Congress' lack of immediate action on the bill. His ineffectiveness in the negotiations and his reversal in decision to attend the debates were seized upon to portray McCain as erratic in his response to the economy. Days later, a second version of the original bailout bill was passed by both the House and Senate, with Obama, his vice presidential running mate Joe Biden, and McCain all voting for the measure (Hillary Clinton would as well).
All the aforementioned remarks and campaign issues hurt McCain's standing with voters. All these also occurred after the economic crisis and after McCain's poll numbers had started to fall. Although sound bites of all of these "missteps" were played repeatedly on national television, many pundits and analysts say that the actual financial crisis and economic conditions caused McCain's large drop in support in mid-September and severely damaged his campaign.
John McCain's proposals focused on open-market competition rather than government funding or control. At the heart of his plan were tax credits – $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families who do not subscribe to or do not have access to health care through their employer. To help people who are denied coverage by insurance companies due to pre-existing conditions, McCain proposed working with states to create what he calls a "Guaranteed Access Plan".
Barack Obama called for universal health care. His health care plan proposed creating a National Health Insurance Exchange that would include both private insurance plans and a Medicare-like government run option. Coverage would be guaranteed regardless of health status, and premiums would not vary based on health status either. It would have required parents to cover their children, but did not require adults to buy insurance.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the two plans had different philosophical focuses. They described the purpose of the McCain plan as to "make insurance more affordable," while the purpose of the Obama plan was for "more people to have health insurance." The Des Moines Register characterized the plans similarly. The Commonwealth Fund concluded that, compared with McCain's approach, Obama's plan could provide more people with affordable health insurance that covers essential services, achieve greater equity in access to care, realize efficiencies and cost savings in the provision of coverage and delivery of care, and redirect incentives to improve quality.
Critics of McCain's plan argued that it would not significantly reduce the number of uninsured Americans, would increase costs, reduce consumer protections and lead to less generous benefit packages. Critics of Obama's plan argued that it would increase federal regulation of private health insurance without addressing the underlying incentives behind rising health care spending. Mark Pauly suggested that a combination of the two approaches would work better than either one alone.
Various analyses of the two candidates' plans came to widely varying predictions of their costs and effects. A comparison by The Tax Policy Center, a project of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute estimated that Obama's proposals could cost $1.6 trillion over 10 years, while the tax-related provisions of McCain's proposals could cost $1.3 trillion over the same period. A comparison by The Lewin Group, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, published in October 2008, found that the McCain plan would reduce the number of uninsured by 21.1 million and cost $2.05 trillion over 10 years, while the Obama plan would reduce the uninsured by 26.6 million and increase federal spending by $1.17 trillion over the same period. Estimates prepared by HSI Networks found that the McCain plan would reduce the uninsured by 27.5 million at an annual cost of $287 billion, and the Obama plan would reduce the uninsured by 25.5 million at an annual cost of $452 billion.
A poll released in early November 2008 found that voters supporting Obama listed health care as their second priority; voters supporting McCain listed it as fourth, tied with the war in Iraq. Affordability was the primary health care priority among both sets of voters. Obama voters were more likely than McCain voters to believe government can do much about health care costs.
In an October 17–20, 2008 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of registered voters, 2% said race made them more likely to vote for Barack Obama, 4% said it made them less likely to do so, and 2% were not sure. The other 92% of respondents said race was not a major factor in their vote (margin of error was ±2.9%).
A July 18–21, 2008 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 20% of African American registered voters and 8% of white registered voters considered race the single most important factor when voting (margin of error was ±3.1%). This percentage increased in both groups from previous polls.
A June 6–9, 2008 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 17% were enthusiastic about Obama being the first African American president, 70% were comfortable or indifferent, and 13% had reservations or were uncomfortable (margin of error was ±3.1%).
Obama generally avoided racial issues in his campaign. He would often place white people behind him when in a hall speaking to a large black group in order to avoid racial imagery. On June 11, 2008, Fox News Channel used the phrase "Outraged liberals: Stop picking on Obama's baby mama" in an on screen graphic in a discussion as to whether U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama's wife, Michelle, was being unfairly criticized. A senior vice president of programming at Fox said in a statement that a producer "exercised poor judgment" during the segment. There were also attempts to interpret a fist tap as either a racial move, or a "terrorist fist jab".
- September 26: The first presidential debate took place at the University of Mississippi. The central issues debated were supposed to be foreign policy and national security. However, due to the economic climate, some questions on financial topics appeared as well. The debate was formatted into nine nine-minute segments, and the moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS, introduced the topics.
- October 2: The vice-presidential debate was hosted at Washington University in St. Louis, and was moderated by Gwen Ifill of PBS.
- October 7: The second presidential debate took place at Belmont University. It was a town meeting format debate moderated by NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw and addressed issues raised by members of the audience, particularly the economy.
- October 15: The third and final presidential debate was hosted at Hofstra University. It focused on domestic and economic policy. Like the first presidential debate, it was formatted into segments, with moderator Bob Schieffer introducing the topics.
Another debate was sponsored by the Columbia University political union and took place there on October 19. All candidates who could theoretically win the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election were invited, and Ralph Nader, Cynthia McKinney, and Chuck Baldwin agreed to attend. Amy Goodman, principal host of Democracy Now!, moderated. It was broadcast on cable by C-SPAN and on the Internet by Break-the-Matrix.
The reported cost of campaigning for president has increased significantly in recent years. One source reported that if the costs for both Democratic and Republican campaigns were added together (for the presidential primary election, general election, and the political conventions), the costs have more than doubled in only eight years ($448.9 million in 1996, $649.5 million in 2000, and $1.01 billion in 2004). In January 2007, Federal Election Commission Chairman Michael E. Toner estimated that the 2008 race would be a $1 billion election, and that to be taken seriously, a candidate would have needed to raise at least $100 million by the end of 2007.
Although he had said he would not be running for president, published reports in 2007 indicated that billionaire and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg had been considering a presidential bid as an independent with up to $1 billion of his own fortune to finance it. Bloomberg ultimately ended this speculation by unequivocally stating that he would not run.
With the increase in money expenditures, many candidates did not use the public financing system funded by the presidential election campaign fund checkoff. John McCain, Tom Tancredo, John Edwards, Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden qualified for and elected to take public funds throughout the primary process. Major Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama chose not to participate in the public financing system.
According to required campaign filings as reported by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), 148 candidates for all parties collectively raised $1,644,712,232 and spent $1,601,104,696 for the primary and general campaigns combined through November 24, 2008. The amounts raised and spent by the major candidates, according to the same source, were as follows:
|Candidate (Party)||Amount raised||Amount spent||Votes||Average spent per vote|
|Barack Obama (D)||$778,642,962||$760,370,195||69,498,516||$10.94|
|John McCain (R)||$379,006,485||$346,666,422||59,948,323||$5.78|
|Ralph Nader (I)||$4,496,180||$4,187,628||739,034||$5.67|
|Bob Barr (L)||$1,383,681||$1,345,202||523,715||$2.57|
|Chuck Baldwin (C)||$261,673||$234,309||199,750||$1.17|
|Cynthia McKinney (G)||$240,130||$238,968||161,797||$1.48|
|Excludes spending by independent expenditure concerns.|
Source: Federal Election Commission
Notable expressions and phrases
- Drill, baby, drill: Republican self-described energy policy
- Yes We Can: Obama's campaign slogan
- That one: McCain's reference to Obama during the 2nd debate.
- Lipstick on a pig: Obama used this phrase to insinuate that any changes that McCain was advocating from the policies of George W. Bush would only be slight modifications of Bush's policies but the underlying policies would be the same, and in Obama's opinion, bad. Some called it sexist, claiming it was a reference to Sarah Palin, who cracked a joke during the Republican convention that the only difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is lipstick.
Howard Dean collected large contributions through the Internet in his 2004 primary run. In 2008, candidates went even further to reach out to Internet users through their own sites and such sites as YouTube, MySpace, and Facebook.
Not only did the Internet allow candidates to raise money, but also it gave them a tool to appeal to newer and younger demographics. Political pundits were now evaluating candidates based on their social media following. Senator Barack Obama's victory is credited to his competitive edge in social media and Internet following. Obama had over 2 million American supporters on Facebook and 100,000 followers on Twitter, while McCain attracted only 600,000 Facebook supporters (likes) and 4,600 followers on Twitter. Obama's YouTube channel held 115,000 subscribers and more than 97 million video views. Obama had maintained a similar advantage over Senator Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Primary.
Obama's edge in social media was crucial to the election outcome. According to a study by the Pew Internet and American Life project, 35 percent of Americans relied on online video for election news. Ten percent of Americans used social networking sites to learn about the election. The 2008 election showed huge increases in Internet use.
Another study done after the election gave a lot of insight on young voters. Thirty-seven percent of Americans ages 18–24 got election news from social networking sites. Almost a quarter of Americans saw something about the election in an online video. YouTube and other online video outlets allowed candidates to advertise in ways like never before. The Republican Party in particular was criticized for not adequately using social media and other means to reach young voters.
Social media allowed voters to share their voting experience. On November 4, 2008 at 10:30 p.m., 4.9 million Facebook users had already posted an announcement that they had voted, simply by checking a box on the site. Various websites allowed voters to share concerns over voting malfunctions, ballot shortages and other problems. Social media and the Internet provided a new and interactive voting experience.
Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama created a broad popular movement and a new method of campaigning by courting and mobilizing activists, donations, and voters through the Internet. It was part of a campaign that mobilized grassroots workers in every state. Obama also set fundraising records in more than one month by gaining support from a record-breaking number of individual small donors.
Anonymous and semi-anonymous smear campaigns, traditionally done with fliers and push calling, also spread to the Internet. Organizations specializing in the production and distribution of viral material, such as Brave New Films, emerged; such organizations have been said to be having a growing influence on American politics.
YouTube was considered to be a valuable asset for free advertising. Joe Trippi, the manager of Howard Dean's presidential campaign, claimed that Obama's YouTube campaign material was watched for 14.5 million hours, a viewing that would have cost $47 million for broadcast television. YouTube and other online video outlets allowed candidates to advertise in ways like never before.
The percentage of Americans who regularly rely on the Internet for campaign news almost doubled (13 to 24 percent) from 2004 to 2008, according to a 2008 study from the Pew Research Center. Americans who relied on traditional news sources rate was either stagnant or declining.
A 2011 study by Ad Age magazine shows that 39 percent of voting-age social media users repost and share political messages. The study also recorded 1/3 of Facebook friends opening video or article links. The 2008 election was a catalyst for Internet use in American politics. Jay Samit, a writer at Ad Age magazine, predicted the 2012 election to be "the most participatory election in our nation's history" because of social media.
Allegations of voter list purges using unlawful criteria caused controversy in at least six swing states: Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina. On October 5, 2008 the Republican Lt. Governor of Montana, John Bohlinger, accused the Montana Republican Party of vote caging to purge 6,000 voters from three counties which trend Democratic. Allegations arose in Michigan that the Republican Party planned to challenge the eligibility of voters based on lists of foreclosed homes. The campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama filed a lawsuit challenging this. The House Judiciary Committee wrote to the Department of Justice requesting an investigation.
Virginia election authorities were ordered by a federal judge to preserve late-arriving absentee ballots sent by active-duty military personnel following a suit by the McCain campaign. It alleged that the state sent absentee ballots late to service members. According to federal law, absentee ballots must be mailed to troops in foreign countries at least 45 days before an election. The charge against Virginia was that the ballots were not printed until after the deadline and therefore were mailed late to soldiers abroad.
Guam's 173,000 residents are U.S. citizens, and must obey U.S. laws passed in Washington, yet they have neither a voting member of Congress, nor votes in the Electoral College. Since 1980, they have held a straw poll for president at the same time as the U.S. national elections. In 2007, Guam's legislature voted to move the straw poll up to September to draw attention to the choices of Guam's population and their continued disfranchisement, but the governor vetoed the bill. Obama won the 2008 Guam straw poll with 20,120 votes to McCain's 11,940.
Libertarian candidate Bob Barr filed a lawsuit in Texas to have Obama and McCain removed from the ballot in that state. His campaign alleged that both the candidates had missed the August 26 deadline to file, and were present on the ballot contrary to Texas election law. Neither Obama, or McCain at the time of the deadline had been confirmed as the candidate for their respective parties. The Texas Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit without explanation.
In Ohio, identified by both parties as a key state, allegations surfaced from both Republicans and Democrats that individuals from out of state were moving to the state temporarily and attempting to vote despite not meeting the state's requirement of permanent residency for more than 29 days. The Franklin County Board of Elections referred 55 cases of possible voting irregularities to the local prosecutor. Three groups attracted particular notice: 'Vote from Home,' 'Vote Today Ohio,' and 'Drop Everything and Come to Ohio.' Vote from Home attracted the most attention when thirteen of the group's members moved to the same location in eastern Columbus. Members of the group organized by Marc Gustafson, including several Marshall and Rhodes scholars studying at Oxford University, settled with Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien to have their challenged ballots withdrawn. The Obama campaign and others alleged that members of the McCain campaign had also voted without properly establishing residency. Since 1953, only six people in Ohio have gone to prison for illegal voting.
Republicans and independents leveled significant criticism at media outlets' coverage of the presidential election season. An October 22, 2008 Pew Research Center poll estimated 70% of registered voters believed journalists wanted Barack Obama to win the election, as opposed to 9% for John McCain. Another Pew survey, conducted after the election, found that 67% of voters thought that the press fairly covered Obama, versus 30% who viewed the coverage as unfair. Regarding McCain, 53% of voters viewed his press coverage as fair versus 44% who characterized it as unfair. Among affiliated Democrats, 83% believed the press fairly covered Obama; just 22% of Republicans thought the press was fair to McCain.
At the February debate, Tim Russert of NBC News was criticized for what some perceived as disproportionately tough questioning of Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton. Among the questions, Russert had asked Clinton, but not Obama, to provide the name of the new Russian President (Dmitry Medvedev). This was later parodied on Saturday Night Live. In October 2007, liberal commentators accused Russert of harassing Clinton over the issue of supporting drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants.
On April 16, ABC News hosted a debate in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos were criticized by viewers, bloggers and media critics for the poor quality of their questions. Many viewers said they considered some of the questions irrelevant when measured against the importance of the faltering economy or the Iraq war. Included in that category were continued questions about Obama's former pastor, Senator Hillary Clinton's assertion that she had to duck sniper fire in Bosnia more than a decade ago, and Senator Obama's not wearing an American flag pin. The moderators focused on campaign gaffes and some believed they focused too much on Obama. Stephanopoulos defended their performance, saying "Senator Obama was the front-runner" and the questions were "not inappropriate or irrelevant at all."
In an op-ed published on April 27, 2008 in The New York Times, Elizabeth Edwards wrote that the media covered much more of "the rancor of the campaign" and "amount of money spent" than "the candidates' priorities, policies and principles." Author Erica Jong commented that "our press has become a sea of triviality, meanness and irrelevant chatter." A Gallup poll released on May 29, 2008 also estimated that more Americans felt the media was being harder on Hillary Clinton than they were towards Barack Obama. Time Magazine columnist Mark Halperin stated that the media during the 2008 election had a "blind, almost slavish" worship of Obama.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism and Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy conducted a study of 5,374 media narratives and assertions about the presidential candidates from January 1 through March 9, 2008. The study found that Obama received 69% favorable coverage and Clinton received 67%, compared to only 43% favorable media coverage of McCain. Another study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University found the media coverage of Obama to be 72% negative from June 8 to July 21 compared to 57% negative for McCain. An October 29 study found 29% of stories about Obama to be negative, compared to 57% of stories about McCain being negative.
Election Day was on November 4, 2008. The majority of states allowed early voting, with all states allowing some form of absentee voting. Voters cast votes for listed presidential candidates but were actually selecting representatives for their state's Electoral College slate.
A McCain victory quickly became improbable as Obama amassed early wins in his home state of Illinois, the Northeast, and the critical battleground states of Ohio (which no Republican has ever been elected President without winning) and Pennsylvania by 9:30 PM Eastern Standard Time. Obama won the entire Northeast by comfortable margins and the Great Lakes states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota by double digits. McCain held on to traditionally Republican states like North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Montana, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and his home state of Arizona. McCain, unlike Bush in 2000 and 2004, failed to win all the southern states: Obama won Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia. Obama also won the hotly contested states of Iowa and New Mexico, which Al Gore had won in 2000 and George W. Bush in 2004. Also, for only the second time since 1940 (1964 being the other), Indiana went Democratic, giving Obama all eight Great Lakes states, the first time a presidential candidate had won all of them since Richard Nixon in 1972.
CNN and Fox News called Virginia for Obama shortly before 11:00 PM, leaving him only 50 electoral votes shy of victory with only six West Coast states (California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Alaska, and Hawaii) still voting. All American networks called the election in favor of Obama at 11:00 PM as the polls closed on the West Coast. Obama was immediately declared the winner in California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii, McCain won Idaho, and the Electoral College totals were updated to 297 for Obama and 146 for McCain (270 are needed to win). McCain gave a concession speech half an hour later in his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona. Obama appeared just before midnight Eastern Time in Grant Park, Chicago, in front of a crowd of 250,000 people to deliver his victory speech.
Following Obama's speech, spontaneous street parties broke out in cities across the United States including Philadelphia, Houston, Las Vegas, Miami, Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles, Portland, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Denver, Atlanta, Madison, and New York City and around the world in London; Bonn; Berlin; Obama, Japan; Toronto; Rio de Janeiro; Sydney; and Nairobi.
Later on election night, after Obama was named the winner, he picked up several more wins in swing states in which the polls had shown a close race. These included Florida, Indiana, Virginia, and the western states of Colorado and Nevada. All of these states had been carried by Bush in 2004. North Carolina and the bellwether state of Missouri remained undecided for several days. Eventually Obama was declared the winner in North Carolina and McCain in Missouri, with Obama pulling out a rare win in Nebraska's 2nd congressional district. This put the projected electoral vote count at 365 for Obama and 173 for McCain. Obama's victories in the populous swing states of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Virginia contributed to his decisive win. The presidential electors cast their ballots for President and Vice President, and Congress tallied these votes on January 8, 2009.
The voter turnout for this election was broadly predicted to be high by American standards, and a record number of votes were cast. The final tally of total votes counted was 131.3 million, compared to 122.3 million in 2004 (which also boasted the highest record since 1968, the last presidential election before the voting age was lowered to 18). Expressed as a percentage of eligible voters, 131.2 million votes could reflect a turnout as high as 63.0% of eligible voters, which would be the highest since 1960. This 63.0% turnout rate is based on an estimated eligible voter population of 208,323,000. Another estimate puts the eligible voter population at 213,313,508, resulting in a turnout rate of 61.6%, which would be the highest turnout rate since 1968.
Broken down by age group, voters under 35 voted for Obama by a large majority with McCain most popular among voters over 60. Voters between 35 and 59 were nearly split 50/50 between the two candidates.
American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate released a report on November 6, 2008, two days after the election, which concluded that the anticipated increase in turnout had failed to materialize. That report was the basis for some news articles that indicated voter turnout failed to meet expectations. When the remaining votes were counted after the release of the report, the total number of votes cast in the presidential election was raised to 131.2 million, which surpassed the American University report's preliminary estimate of 126.5 to 128.5 million voters by a factor of between 2% and 4%.
The election saw increased participation from African Americans, who made up 11.1% of the electorate in 2004, versus 13.0% in 2008. According to exit polls, over 95% of African Americans voted for Obama. This played a critical role in Southern states such as North Carolina. 74% of North Carolina's registered African American voters turned out, as opposed to 69% of North Carolinians in general, with Obama carrying 100% (with rounding) of African-American females and African Americans age 18 to 29, according to exit polling. This was also the case in Virginia, where much higher turnout among African Americans propelled Obama to victory in the former Republican stronghold. Even in southern states in which Obama was unsuccessful, such as Georgia and Mississippi, due to large African American turnout he was much more competitive than John Kerry in 2004.
|Presidential ticket||Party||Ballot access||Votes|
|Obama / Biden||Democratic||50+DC||69,498,516|
|McCain / Palin||Republican||50+DC||59,948,323|
|Nader / Gonzalez||Independent||45+DC||739,034|
|Barr / Root||Libertarian||45||523,715|
|Baldwin / Castle||Constitution||37||199,750|
|McKinney / Clemente||Green||32 + DC||161,797|
No other candidate had ballot access in enough states to win 270 electoral votes. All six candidates appeared on the ballot for a majority of the voters, while the 17 other listed candidates were available to no more than 30% of the voters.
The following candidates (and/or parties) had ballot listing and/or write-in status in more than one state:
- Alan Keyes (America's Independent Party) received 47,746 votes; listed in three states: Colorado and Florida, plus California (listed as American Independent), and also had write-in status in Kentucky, Ohio, Texas, and Utah.
- Ron Paul received 42,426 votes; listed in Louisiana (Louisiana Taxpayers) and in Montana (Constitution), with write-in status in California.
- Gloria La Riva (Party for Socialism and Liberation) received 6,808 votes nationally; listed in 12 states: Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.
- Brian Moore (Socialist Party, see Brian Moore presidential campaign, 2008) received 6,538 votes; listed in eight states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Jersey, Ohio, and Wisconsin, and Tennessee (independent) and Vermont (Liberty Union). He also filed for write-in status in 17 other states: Alaska, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming.
- Róger Calero (Socialist Workers Party) received 5,151 votes; listed in ten states. He was listed by name in Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont. James Harris was listed as his stand-in in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, and Washington, and also had write-in status in California.
- Charles Jay (Boston Tea Party) received 2,422 votes; listed in Colorado and Florida, and in Tennessee (as independent), with write-in status in Arizona, Montana, and Utah.
- Tom Stevens (Objectivist) received 755 votes; listed in Colorado and Florida.
- Gene Amondson (Prohibition) received 653 votes; listed in Colorado, Florida, and Louisiana.
- Jonathan Allen (Heartquake) received 483 votes; listed only in Colorado, with write-in status in Arizona, Georgia, Montana, Texas, and other states.
The following candidates (parties) were listed on the ballot in only one state:
- Richard Duncan (Independent) – Ohio; 3,905 votes.
- John Joseph Polachek (New Party) Illinois; 1,149 votes.
- Frank McEnulty (New American Independent) – Colorado (listed as unaffiliated); 829 votes.
- Jeffrey Wamboldt (We the People) – Wisconsin; 764 votes.
- Jeff Boss (Vote Here) – New Jersey; 639 votes.
- George Phillies – New Hampshire (also listed with the label Libertarian); 531 votes.
- Ted Weill (Reform) – Mississippi; 481 votes.
- Bradford Lyttle (U.S. Pacifist) – Colorado; 110 votes.
In Nevada, 6,267 votes were cast for "None Of These Candidates". In the three states that officially keep track of "blank" votes for President, 103,193 votes were recorded as "blank". More than 100,000 write-in votes were cast and recorded for a scattering of other candidates, including 62 votes for "Santa Claus" (in ten states) and 11 votes for "Mickey Mouse" (in five states).
According to the Federal Election Commission, an unusually high number of "miscellaneous" write-ins were cast for president in 2008, including 112,597 tallied in the 17 states that record votes for non-listed candidates. There were more presidential candidates on the ballot than at any other time in U. S. history, except for the 1992 election, which also had 23 candidates listed in at least one state.
Popular vote totals are from the . The results of the electoral vote were certified by Congress on January 8, 2009.
|Presidential candidate||Party||Home state||Popular vote||Electoral|
|Count||Percentage||Vice-presidential candidate||Home state||Electoral vote|
|Barack Hussein Obama||Democratic||Illinois||69,498,516||52.93%||365||Joseph Biden||Delaware||365|
|John Sidney McCain||Republican||Arizona||59,948,323||45.65%||173||Sarah Louise Palin||Alaska||173|
|Ralph Nader||Independent||Connecticut||739,034||0.56%||0||Matt Gonzalez||California||0|
|Bob Barr||Libertarian||Georgia||523,715||0.40%||0||Wayne Allyn Root||Nevada||0|
|Chuck Baldwin||Constitution||Florida||199,750||0.15%||0||Darrell Castle||Tennessee||0|
|Cynthia McKinney||Green||Georgia||161,797||0.12%||0||Rosa Clemente||North Carolina||0|
|Alan Keyes||America's Independent Party||New York||47,941||0.04%||0||Wiley S. Drake, Sr.||Colorado||0|
|Needed to win||270||270|
Results by state
The following table records the official vote tallies for each state for those presidential candidates who were listed on ballots in enough states to have a theoretical chance for a majority in the Electoral College. State popular vote results are from the . The column labeled "Margin" shows Obama's margin of victory over McCain (the margin is negative for states and districts won by McCain).
|States/districts won by Obama/Biden|
|States/districts won by McCain/Palin|
|District of Columbia||3||245,800||92.46%||3||17,367||6.53%||-||958||0.36%||-||0||0.00%||-||0||0.00%||-||590||0.22%||-||1,138||0.43%||-||228,433||85.92%||265,853||DC|
★Maine and Nebraska each allow for their electoral votes to be split between candidates. In both states, two electoral votes are awarded to the winner of the statewide race and one electoral vote is awarded to the winner of each congressional district. The following table records the official presidential vote tallies for Maine and Nebraska's congressional districts.
|Maine's 1st congressional district||1||232,145||60.51%||144,604||37.69%||5,263||1.37%||1,362||0.36%||252||0.07%||87,541||22.82%||383,626|
|Maine's 2nd congressional district||1||189,778||54.61%||150,669||43.35%||5,373||1.55%||1,538||0.44%||179||0.05%||39,109||11.25%||347,537|
|Nebraska's 1st congressional district||1||121,411||44.33%||148,179||54.10%||1,963||0.72%||922||0.34%||1,024||0.37%||394||0.14%||-26,768||-9.77%||273,893|
|Nebraska's 2nd congressional district||1||138,809||49.97%||135,439||48.75%||1,628||0.59%||1,014||0.36%||599||0.22%||320||0.12%||3,370||1.21%||277,809|
|Nebraska's 3rd congressional district||1||73,099||29.63%||169,361||68.64%||1,815||0.74%||804||0.33%||1,349||0.55%||314||0.13%||-96,262||-39.01%||246,742|
Red font color denotes states won by Republican John McCain; blue denotes those won by Democrat Barack Obama.
States/districts in which the margin of victory was under 1% (26 electoral votes):
- Missouri 0.13%
- North Carolina 0.33%
States/districts in which the margin of victory was under 5% (62 electoral votes):
- Indiana 1.03%
- Nebraska's 2nd congressional district 1.21%
- Montana 2.26%
- Florida 2.82%
- Ohio 4.59%
States/districts in which margin of victory was more than 5% but less than 10% (73 electoral votes):
- Georgia 5.21%
- Virginia 6.30%
- South Dakota 8.41%
- Arizona 8.52%
- North Dakota 8.63%
- Colorado 8.95% (Tipping point state)
- South Carolina 8.98%
- Iowa 9.53% (Tipping point state)
- New Hampshire 9.61%
- Nebraska's 1st congressional district 9.77%
The American presidential election was followed closely internationally. When it was clear that Obama was victorious, many world leaders sent congratulations and well wishes to the President-elect.
|The 2008 presidential vote by demographic subgroup|
|Demographic subgroup||Obama||McCain||Other|| % of|
|Religious service attendance|
|More than weekly||43||55||2||12|
|A few times a year||59||39||2||28|
|White evangelical or born-again Christian?|
|White evangelical or born-again Christian||24||74||2||26|
|18–24 years old||66||32||2||10|
|25–29 years old||66||31||3||8|
|30–39 years old||54||44||2||18|
|40–49 years old||49||49||2||21|
|50–64 years old||50||49||1||27|
|65 and older||45||53||2||16|
|First time voter?|
|First time voter||69||30||1||11|
|Gay, lesbian, or bisexual||70||27||3||4|
|Not a high school graduate||63||35||2||4|
|High school graduate||52||46||2||20|
|Some college education||51||47||2||31|
Obama, having a Caucasian mother and Kenyan father of the Luo ethnic group, became the first African American as well as the first bi-racial president. Although he may have been the first black president to win an election, Obama was not the first African American to run for president. Shirley Chisolm, Jesse Jackson, Lenora Fulani, Carol Moseley Braun, Alan Keyes, and Al Sharpton all at some point were in the process for presidential nomination. The Obama-Biden ticket was also the first winning ticket in American history on which neither candidate was a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant; Biden is Roman Catholic and is the first Roman Catholic to be elected Vice President; all other tickets with Catholic vice presidential candidates had been defeated (1964, 1972, 1984). Obama and Biden were the first President and Vice President elected from the Senate since 1960 (John F. Kennedy/Lyndon B. Johnson) (in the previous election cycle (2004) Democrats also nominated two sitting Senators, John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, but they lost to incumbents Bush and Cheney), Obama became the first Northern Democratic president since Kennedy, and the Obama-Biden ticket was the first winning Democratic ticket to feature two Northerners since 1940 (Franklin D. Roosevelt/Henry A. Wallace). Also, Obama became the first Democratic candidate to win a majority of the popular vote since Jimmy Carter in 1976, the first to win a majority of both votes and states since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and the first Northern Democrat to win a majority of both votes and states since Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. This was the first presidential election since 1952 in which neither of the major party candidates was either the incumbent President or Vice-President.
Prior to the election, commentators discussed whether Senator Obama would be able to redraw the electoral map by winning states that had been voting for Republican candidates in recent decades. In many ways, he was successful. He won every region of the country by double digits except the South, which John McCain won by nine percent. Obama won Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, North Carolina, Florida, and Virginia in the South (region as defined by the US Census Bureau). McCain won most of the Deep South, where white voters have supported Republican candidates by large margins in the last few decades. Obama also defied political bellwethers, becoming the first person to win the presidency while losing Missouri since 1956 (as well as the first Democrat ever to do so) and while losing Kentucky and Tennessee since 1960. He was the first Democrat to win without Arkansas since that state joined the Union in 1836 and the first Democrat to win the presidency without winning West Virginia since 1916. Because one West Virginia elector voted for the Democrat in 1916, Obama was the first Democrat to win without any electors from the state since its founding in 1863. Indiana and Virginia voted for the Democratic nominee for the first time since 1964. Although Obama did not win other normally Republican states such as Georgia and Montana (which were won by Bill Clinton in 1992), he nonetheless was competitive in both. He lost Montana by just under 3% and Georgia by slightly more than 5%. Also notably, Barack Obama won all of the 2004 swing states (states that either Kerry or Bush won by less than 5%) by a margin of 8.5 percent or more except for Ohio, which the Democrat carried by 4.5 percent.
Obama was the first presidential candidate to split the electoral votes from Nebraska. Together with Maine, which would not split its votes until 2016, Nebraska is one of two states that split their electoral votes, two going to the statewide popular vote winner and the rest going to the winner of each respective congressional district (Nebraska has three, and Maine has two). Obama won the electoral vote from Nebraska's 2nd congressional district, which contains the city of Omaha. Nebraska's other four electoral votes went to John McCain.
As of 2016, this election is the last time that Indiana and North Carolina voted Democratic.
This election exhibited the continuation of some of the polarization trends evident in the 2000 and 2004 elections. McCain won whites 55–43 percent, while Obama won blacks 95–4 percent, Hispanics 67–31 percent, and Asians 62–35 percent. Voters aged 18–29 voted for Obama by 66–32 percent while elderly voters backed McCain 53–45 percent. The 25-year age gap between McCain and Obama was the widest in U.S. presidential election history among the top two candidates.
- Barack Obama religion conspiracy theories
- Barack Obama citizenship conspiracy theories
- History of the United States (1991–present)
- First inauguration of Barack Obama
- Newspaper endorsements in the United States presidential election, 2008
- Presidential transition of Barack Obama
- United States gubernatorial elections, 2008
- United States House elections, 2008
- United States Senate elections, 2008
- United States third party and independent presidential candidates, 2008
- Nationwide opinion polling for the United States presidential election, 2008
- Statewide opinion polling for the United States presidential election, 2008
- International opinion polling for the United States presidential election, 2008
- Scientific forecasts: FiveThirtyEight.com
- Shirley Chisholm's prior "win" in New Jersey in 1972 was in a no-delegate-awarding, presidential preference ballot that the major candidates were not listed in and that the only other candidate who was listed had already withdrawn from; the actual delegate selection vote went to George McGovern.