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‹ 2004 Flag of the United States of America 2012 ›
United States presidential election, 2008
November 4, 2008
Official portrait of John McCain Barack Obama
Nominee John McCain Barack Obama
Party Republican Democratic
Home state Arizona Illinois
Running mate Sarah Palin Joe Biden
Electoral vote 281 257
States carried 28 22 + D.C.
Popular vote 59,353,091 58,045,547
Percentage 50.2% 49.1%
US Electoral College 2008 Parallel Universe

Presidential election results map. Red denotes states won by McCain/Palin (28), Blue denotes Obama/Biden (22 + D.C.).

Incumbent President
George W. Bush
Republican
President-Elect
John McCain
Republican

The United States presidential election of 2008 was held on Tuesday, November 4, 2008. It was the 56th consecutive quadrennial United States presidential election. Republican John McCain, the then senior United States Senator from Arizona, won in a close contest, defeating Democratic Party nominee, Barack Obama, the junior United States Senator from Illinois. Incumbent Republican President George W. Bush's policies and actions and the American public's desire for change were key issues throughout the campaign, and during the general election campaign, both candidates ran on a platform of change and reform in Washington. Domestic policy and the economy eventually emerged as the main themes in the last few months of the election campaign, particularly after the onset of the 2008 economic crisis.

Five states changed allegiance from the 2004 election. Four had voted for the Republican nominee in 2004 and one had voted for the Democratic nominee in 2004. The selected electors from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia voted for President and Vice President of the United States on December 15, 2008. Those votes were tallied before a joint session of Congress on January 8, 2009, thus making the projected electoral votes official. McCain received 281 electoral votes, and Obama 257.

There were several unique aspects about the 2008 election. This election was the first time in U.S. history that an African American was a major parties nominee, and the first time a Women was elected Vice President. It was also the first time two sitting senators ran against each other. It was the first election in 56 years that neither an incumbent president (Bush was barred from seeking a third term by the Twenty-second Amendment) nor vice president ran. Also, voter turnout for the 2008 election was the highest in at least 40 years.

Background

In 2004, President George W. Bush narrowly won reelection. After Republican pickups in the House and Senate in the 2004 elections, Republicans held their control of both 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 9/11, and they were barely 50% after his reelection. Although Bush was reelected with a larger Electoral College margin than in 2000 and an absolute majority (50.7%) of the popular vote, 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 ratings were below 40%, and the Democratic party appeared to have a clear advantage in the upcoming Congressional elections. Additionally, Democrats pulled out several surprise victories in Congress and gained the majority in both houses. Bush's approval ratings continued to drop steadily throughout the rest of his term.

Nominations

Democratic Nomination

Democratic Candidates

  • Senator Joe Biden of Delaware
  • Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York
  • Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut
  • Former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina
  • Former Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska
  • Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio
  • Senator Barack Obama of Illinois
  • Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico
  • Former Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa

Befor the Primaries

"Front-runner" status is dependent on the news agency reporting, and by October 2007, the consensus listed about three candidates as leading the pack after several debate performances. For example, CNN listed Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama as the Democratic front runners. 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.

Two candidates, Clinton and Obama, raised over $20 million in the first three months of 2007. Edwards raised over $12 million and Richardson raised over $6 million. Hillary Clinton set the Democratic record for largest single day fund raising in a primary on June 30, 2007 while Barack Obama set the record for monthly fundraising during a primary with $55 million in February of 2008.

Early primaries/caucuses

At the start of the year, support for Barack Obama began rising in the polls, passing Clinton for first place in Iowa; Obama ended up winning the caucus, with John Edwards coming in second and Clinton a close third. Iowa is viewed as the state that jump-started Obama's campaign and set him on track to win the nomination and the presidency.

Obama was the new front-runner in New Hampshire, and the Clinton campaign was struggling after a bad loss in Iowa and no real strategy in place for after the early primaries and caucuses. However, in a turning point for her campaign, Clinton's voice wavered with emotion in a public interview broadcast live on TV. By the end of that day, Clinton won the primary by 2% of the vote, contrary to the predictions of pollsters who had her as much as twelve points behind on the day of the primary itself.

Super Tuesday

On February 3 on the UCLA campus, celebrities Oprah Winfrey, Caroline Kennedy and Stevie Wonder, among others, made appearances to show support for Barack Obama in a rally led by Michelle Obama. Obama trailed in the California polling by an average of 6.0%; he ended up losing the state by 8.3%. Some analysts cited a large Latino turnout that voted for Clinton as the deciding factor. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver, endorsed Obama.

Super Tuesday occurred on February 5, 2008, during which the largest-ever number of simultaneous state primary elections was held. Super Tuesday ended leaving the Democrats in a virtual tie, with Obama amounting 847 delegates to Clinton's 834 from the 23 states that held Democratic primaries.

Louisiana, Washington, Nebraska, Hawaii, Wisconsin, U.S. Virgin Islands, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia primaries and the Maine caucus all took place after Super Tuesday in February. Obama won all of them, giving him ten consecutive victories after Super Tuesday.

Ohio and Texas

On March 4, Hillary Clinton carried Ohio and Rhode Island in the Democratic primaries; some considered these wins, especially Ohio, a surprise upset, although she led 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. Hillary Clinton won the primary by 9.2%, with approximately 54.6% of the vote.

Indiana and North Carolina

On May 6, North Carolina and Indiana held their Democratic presidential primaries. Clinton and Obama campaigned aggressively in both states before the voting took place; both candidates acknowledged the importance of these primaries and said they were turning point states. Polling had shown Obama a few points ahead in North Carolina and Clinton similarly leading in Indiana. However, 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 1.4% in Indiana. After these primaries, it became very improbable, if not virtually impossible, for Clinton to win the nomination; Indiana had 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.

Florida and Michigan

During late 2007, both 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; however, 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 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 delegates from Michigan and Florida at the convention in August, but to only award each a half-vote.

Clinching the nomination

Technically the nomination process for major political parties continues through June of election year. In previous cycles the candidates were effectively chosen by the end of the March primaries. However, Barack Obama did not win enough delegates to secure the nomination until June 3, after a 17-month-long campaign against Hillary Clinton. Obama had a wide lead in states won, but because of Democratic state delegate contests being decided by a form of proportional representation and close popular vote numbers between Clinton and Obama, the contest for the nomination continued into June 2008. By May, Clinton had claimed a lead in the popular vote, but the Associated Press found her numbers accurate only in one very close scenario.

In June, after the last of the primaries had taken place, Obama, with the help of multiple super delegate endorsements, had finally gotten enough delegates to secure the Democratic nomination for President, becoming the first African American to win the nomination of a major political party in the United States. However, Clinton refused to concede the race for several days, although she did signal that her presidential campaign was ending in a post-primary speech on June 3 in her home state. She finally conceded the nomination to Obama on June 7 and pledged her full support to the presumptive nominee, vowing to do everything she could to help him get elected.

Republican nomination

In addition, 2008 was the first election since 1952 that neither the incumbent president nor the incumbent vice president was a candidate in the general election. It was the first time since the 1928 election that neither sought his party's nomination for president. These distinctions are moot, since term limits absolutely prevented Bush from seeking the nomination and being a candidate. The unique aspect was vice-president Cheney's not seeking the presidential nomination.

Republican Candidates

  • Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas
  • Former Governor Jim Gilmore of Virginia
  • Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York
  • Former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas
  • Representative Duncan Hunter of California
  • Senator John McCain of Arizona
  • Representative Ron Paul of Texas
  • Former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts
  • Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado
  • Former Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee

Before the primaries

In the third quarter of 2007, the top four GOP (Republican) fund raisers were Romney, Giuliani, Thompson, and Ron Paul. Paul set the GOP record for the largest online single day fund raising on November 5, 2007. MSNBC's Chuck Todd christened Giuliani and John McCain the front runners after the second Republican presidential debate in early 2007.

Early primaries/caucuses

Huckabee, after winning in Iowa, had little money and hoped for a third-place finish in New Hampshire. John 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, the race for the nomination was based there. McCain meanwhile managed a small victory in South Carolina, setting him up for a larger and more important victory in Florida soon afterward.

Super Tuesday

In February, before Super Tuesday, the California primary took place after John McCain was endorsed by Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudy Giuliani (who had dropped out of the race following the Florida primary). This gave him a significant boost in the state.

A few days later, Mitt Romney suspended his presidential campaign and endorsed McCain, leaving Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul as the only major challengers of McCain in the remaining Republican primaries. Louisiana, Washington, Kansas, Wisconsin, and Washington held primaries in February after Super Tuesday, with McCain picking up wins in these states. 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 hadn't 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 active opponent.

General Election Campaign/Campaign Issues

Iraq

The unpopular war in Iraq was a key issue during the campaign before the economic crisis. John McCain had supported the war while Barack Obama had opposed it from the outset. McCain's statement that the United States could be in Iraq for as much as the next 50 to 100 years would prove costly as Obama used the statement against him as part of his strategy to tie him to the unpopular President Bush.

John McCain's support for the successful 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, whereas Obama (who opposed the surge) argued that his opposition to the invasion that preceded the surge showed his. However, Obama was quick to remind voters that there would have been no need for a "surge" had there been no war at all, which he then used to question McCain's judgment as well.

Bush's Unpopularity

Entering 2008, George W. Bush was very unpopular with polls consistently showing his percent support from the American public in the twenties and thirties. In March 2008, McCain was endorsed by Bush at the White House, but did not make a single appearance on McCain's behalf during the campaign. 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 pointed out in ads and at numerous campaign rallies that McCain had claimed in an interview that he voted with Bush 65% of the time, and this was supported by the congressional voting records for the years Bush was in office.

Change vs. Experience

Before even the first Democratic primaries, 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, while at the same time highlighting the fact that Obama, a senator only since 2004, might be a risky choice due to his relative inexperience. 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 while 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 6.

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 4th election, although final pre-election polling found that voters considered Obama's inexperience and McCain's association with sitting President George W. Bush about equal.

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 prior to that had been a council member and mayor of Wasilla. Nonetheless, she excited much of the conservative base of the GOP with her speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention, a group that was initially lukewarm toward McCain's candidacy.

Two media interviews, the first with Charlie Gibson and the second with Katie Couric, each suggested that Palin lacked knowledge on certain key issues, and cast doubt among many voters about her qualifications to be Vice President or President. On Saturday Night Live, she was frequently lampooned by Tina Fey; in one sketch on September 27 that parodied Palin's interview with Couric, portions of the sketch were direct quotes and gestures from the interview. Because of Palin's conservative views, there was also concern that, while she would bring conservatives to McCain, she would also alienate independents and moderates, two groups that pundits observed McCain would need to be elected President.

The economy

Polls taken in the last few months of the presidential campaign as well as exit polls conducted on election day showed the economy as the top concern for voters. In the fall of 2008, the economy suffered its most serious downturn since the Great Depression. During this period John McCain's election prospects were hurt 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." Both on the stump and in Obama's political ad, "Seven", the gaffe was used to portray McCain as unable to relate to the concerns of ordinary Americans. This out-of-touch image was further cultivated when, on September 15, at a morning rally in Jacksonville, Florida, the Senator 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.

The economic decline under incumbent President Bush's stewardship also served to undermine the public's trust in the ability of other Republicans to foster economic prosperity, including John McCain. The perception that McCain would govern like Bush, due to a voting record that sided with the President more than once, further eroded McCain's political image.

McCain was portrayed as not playing a significant role in the negotiations for the first version of the bailout bill on the campaign trail, which fell short of passage in the House. McCain would attend the first presidential debate on September 26, despite the bill going nowhere in Congress. 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.

Presidential and vice-presidential debates

Four debates were announced by the Commission on Presidential Debates:

  • September 26: The first presidential debate took place at the University of Mississippi. The central issues debated were foreign policy and national security. The debate was formatted into nine nine-minute segments, and the moderator (Jim Lehrer) 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 a number of 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.

Election Results

Election Day

November 4, 2008 was Election Day in 49 states and the District of Columbia; it was the last of 21 consecutive election days in Oregon, which abolished the voting booth in 1998. 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 their state's slate of Electoral College members.

A McCain victory was quickly on the rise in a surprise as Obama amassed wins in some of the Northeastern states, McCain won the critical swing states of Pennsylvania and Ohio as New Mexico, and Iowa went to Obama by 9:20 PM. McCain and Obama split the Northeast by comfortable margins. All American networks called the election in favor of John McCain at 10:00 PM Eastern Standard Time as the polls closed in a handfull of western states, with the Electoral College totals being updated to 274 for McCain and 180 for Obama (270 are needed to win). Senator Obama gave a concession speech about half an hour later. President-elect John McCain appeared at 11:30 Eastern time, November 4th, in his homestate of Arizona in front of a roaring crowd to deliver his acceptance speech, saying "We did it".

Results by state

# State Winner Delegates
1 Washington Obama / Biden 11
2 Oregon Obama / Biden 7
3 California Obama / Biden 55
4 Arizona McCain / Palin 8
5 Nevada Obama / Biden 5
6 New Mexico Obama / Biden 5
7 Colorado Obama / Biden 8
8 Utah McCain / Palin 5
9 Idaho McCain / Palin 4
10 Montana McCain / Palin 3
11 Wyoming McCain / Palin 3
12 North Dakota McCain / Palin 3
13 South Dakota McCain / Palin 3
14 Nebraska McCain / Palin 4
15 Kansas McCain / Palin 6
16 Oklahoma McCain / Palin 7
17 Texas McCain / Palin 34
18 Louisiana McCain / Palin 9
19 Arkansas McCain / Palin 6
20 Mississippi McCain / Palin 6
21 Alabama McCain / Palin 9
22 Georgia McCain / Palin 15
23 Florida McCain / Palin 27
24 South Carolina McCain / Palin 8
25 North Carolina McCain / Palin 15
26 Virginia McCain / Palin 13
27 Tennessee McCain / Palin 11
28 Kentucky McCain / Palin 8
29 West Virginia McCain / Palin 5
30 Ohio McCain / Palin 20
31 Indiana McCain / Palin 11
32 Illinois Obama / Biden 21
33 Michigan Obama / Biden 18
34 Wisconsin Obama / Biden 10
35 Minnesota Obama / Biden 10
36 Iowa Obama / Biden 7
37 Maine Obama / Biden 4
38 Vermont Obama / Biden 3
39 New Hampshire Obama / Biden 4
40 Massachusetts Obama / Biden 12
41 Rhode Island Obama / Biden 4
42 Connecticut Obama / Biden 7
43 New York Obama / Biden 31
44 Pennsylvania McCain / Palin 21
45 New Jersey Obama / Biden 15
46 Delaware Obama / Biden 3
47 Maryland Obama / Biden 10
48 Missouri McCain / Palin 11
49 Alaska McCain / Palin 3
50 Hawaii Obama / Biden 4
51 Washington D.C. Obama / Biden 3

Grand total

Presidential candidate Party Home state Popular vote Electoral
vote
Running mate Running mate's
home state
Count Pct
John McCain Republican Arizona 59,353,091 50.2% 281 Sarah Palin Alaska
Barack Obama Democratic Illinois 58,045,547 49.1% 257 Joe Biden Delaware
Ralph Nader Connecticut 662,066 0.56% 0 Matt Gonzalez California
Bob Barr Libertarian Georgia 118,226 0.35% 0 Wayne Allyn Root Nevada
Chuck Baldwin Constitution Florida 35,466 0.14% 0 Darrell Castle Tennessee
Cynthia McKinney Green California 11,822 0.12% 0 Rosa Clemente North Carolina
Total 118,226,218 100% 538  
Needed to win 270  

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