The presidential election
Obama’s historic victory
Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States
AMERICA has been painfully conditioned by its past two presidential elections. It was bitterly divided into red and blue states with only a handful in the middle, decided by a handful of votes. On the night of Tuesday November 4th Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, scrambled the assumptions that have governed American politics for half a generation. An intriguing and—to many—inspiring politician, he will take office in January from the most unpopular president in modern time.
When Mr Obama gave a speech that made him famous, in 2004, decrying “blue states” and “red states”, it seemed unlikely that he would be the one to bridge the divide. But the scale of his victory in this election is substantial: he won at least 333 electoral-college votes and will probably do well in the popular vote, too.
New Hampshire, beloved of John McCain for his primary victories there in 2000 and 2008, went for Mr Obama. Then fell Pennsylvania, a big state where Mr McCain had tried his last strategy. He had hoped to raise economic and personal worries about Mr Obama, then to snatch the state from the Democrats and hold down losses elsewhere. It did not work. Ohio has voted with every Republican candidate to win the White House since Lincoln. When that state went for Mr Obama, the election was, in effect, over. Other formerly Republican states such as Iowa and New Mexico went tumbling Mr Obama’s way. Eventually Florida fell for Mr Obama, too, giving him a substantial victory.
The economy seems to have been crucial to his win. George Bush won re-election in 2004 by emphasising “God, gays and guns”. Hillary Clinton racked up big wins against Mr Obama among the economically distressed but socially conservative “Reagan Democrats”, including many in Ohio and Pennsylvania, painting Mr Obama as an out-of-touch elitist. On election day this week, however, Mr Obama was able to attract such supporters. However much Republicans tried to scare voters about Mr Obama’s old relationship with his anti-American preacher and a passing association with a 1960s terrorist, voters were more concerned about their wallets. They also punished the incumbent party heavily, despite the self-styled “maverick” status of its standard-bearer, Mr McCain.
Mr Obama will have a friendly Congress. The Democrats have padded their majority in the House of Representatives. More symbolically, many Republican brand names were defeated in the Senate: Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, John Sununu in New Hampshire and Jim Gilmore in Virginia. It seems most unlikely, however, that the Democrats will manage to get 60 seats in the Senate, the number needed to break Republican filibusters. Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s Republican minority leader, just held on to his seat in a tough race in Kentucky.
Mr Obama survived a myriad of onslaughts, notably on his lack of experience and on his elitist and “celebrity” status. But he ran a calm and disciplined campaign, and most importantly managed to assure voters that he would be a safer leader in a time of financial and economic anxieties. Mr McCain, in contrast, fumbled when he mishandled his response to the economic turmoil of the past few weeks. Mr Obama also succeeded in persuading young people and black people to vote. Along with those sceptical working-class whites, and the traditional Democratic bases on the east and west coasts, Mr Obama constructed a comfortable winning coalition.
America has not shifted greatly to the left. Mr Obama, especially with his big Democratic majority in Congress, will have to manage expectations carefully. Democrats will want big pushes to the left. But Mr Obama knows that Bill Clinton lost his congressional majority after two years because he overreached in that direction.
But all that is to come. On Tuesday night celebrations were expected in Chicago, and elsewhere, as America prepared to welcome the first black president-elect of a country born with the ugly birthmark of slavery. It is a remarkable, and historic, achievement.