For related races, see United States elections, 2008.
The United States presidential election of 2008 was the 56th quadrennial presidential election. It was held on Tuesday, November 4, 2008. The Democratic ticket of Barack Obama, a Senator from Illinois, and Joe Biden, a long-time Senator from Delaware, defeated the Republican ticket of SenatorJohn McCain of Arizona and GovernorSarah Palin of Alaska. Obama became the first African American ever to be elected as president, and Joe Biden became the first Catholic to ever be elected as vice president.
The incumbent Republican president, George W. Bush, was ineligible to be elected to a third term due to the term limits established by the 22nd Amendment. As neither Bush nor Vice President Dick Cheney sought the presidency, the 2008 election was the first election since 1952 in which neither major party's presidential nominee was the incumbent president or the incumbent vice president. McCain secured the Republican nomination by March 2008, defeating Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and other challengers. The Democratic primaries were marked by a sharp contest between Obama and the initial front-runner, Senator Hillary Clinton. Clinton's victory in the New Hampshire primary made her the first woman to win a major party's presidential primary.[nb 1] After a long primary season, Obama clinched the Democratic nomination in June 2008.
Early campaigning focused heavily on the Iraq War and Bush's unpopularity. McCain supported the war, as well as a troop surge that had begun in 2007, while Obama strongly opposed the war. Bush endorsed McCain, but the two did not campaign together, and Bush did not appear in person at the 2008 Republican National Convention. Obama campaigned on the theme that "Washington must change," while McCain emphasized his experience. The campaign was strongly affected by the onset of a major financial crisis, which peaked in September 2008. McCain's decision to suspend his campaign during the height of the financial crisis backfired as voters viewed his response as erratic.
Obama won a decisive victory over McCain, winning both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Obama swept the Northeastern United States and won the swing states of the West, the Midwest, and the South. With 365 electoral votes, Obama received the largest share of the popular vote won by a Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Obama's total vote amount of 69.5 million votes still stands as the highest number ever won by a presidential candidate.
Further information: United States presidential election § Procedure
In 2004, PresidentGeorge W. Bush won reelection, defeating the Democratic nominee, SenatorJohn 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 22nd Amendment. In accordance with Section I of the 20th 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
Main articles: Democratic Party presidential primaries, 2008 and 2008 Democratic National Convention
Main article: Democratic Party presidential candidates, 2008
- 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 delegates from Michigan and Florida at the convention in August, but to only award each a half-vote.
Clinching the nomination
Campaign Themes, Strategies, and Developments
Barack Obama's campaign themes and strategies
Obama's overarching campaign theme was the need for change. His theme of change had two facets. First, it meant a change in the White House, replacing the failed Bush presidency with a Democratic presidency. Second, it meant a change in the way that Washington worked. Divisive partisanship should be replaced by a more cooperative post-partisanship approach. Excessive influence of lobbyists in the legislative process should be replaced by a greater concern with the public good. Thus, Obama believed that voters were not only unhappy with the Bush administration but that they were also unhappy with the nature of politics in Washington.
For this theme to be effective, Obama had to link McCain to the failures of the Bush administration. The link was based in part on the simple fact that McCain was the Republican nominee. Even though he was not part of the Bush White House, and even though he did not always support the Bush administration, McCain nevertheless would be linked in the eyes of many voters because he represented the same party as the president. Moreover, McCain's policy positions in many cases were similar to those of President Bush, which provided another basis for linking the two individuals. The Obama strategy was to equate McCain and Bush as much as possible.
Obama's theme of change also encompassed changes in public policy. On the domestic side, Obama proposed: (a) major health care reform; (b) policies to reshape the economy, especially regarding energy consumption and environmental protection; and (c) increased taxes for top income earners, combined with tax cuts for lower-income individuals. On foreign policy and national security, he favored reducing troop levels in Iraq as quickly as possible and placing more emphasis on winning the war in Afghanistan.
The fact that Obama had not been part of the Congress for many years made it easier for him to present himself as an agent of change. However, it also left him open to the criticism that he lacked the experience to be president. Therefore, part of his campaign strategy was to assure voters that he was capable of handling the job—that he had the knowledge, the judgement, and the temperament to be a successful president.
Finally, Obama's campaign strategy included a strong effort to establish effective campaign organizations throughout the nation. He relied on just such an effort to capture the Democratic nomination, and he extended that effort into the presidential campaign, especially in the competitive states. One aspect of this effort involved rejecting the public subsidies that were available for his presidential campaign, instead raising his own funds. He was extremely successful in doing so, which provided him with vastly superior resources to McCain, who accepted public funding. There was criticism of Obama for being the first presidential candidate to reject public funding for the general election, but it did not seem that many voters were troubled by this decision.
With his superior resources, Obama was able to target a large number of competitive states, including many that were carried by Bush in 2004, such as Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Virginia. These financial resources allowed the Democrats to run numerous campaign ads and to fund an aggressive campaign organization in each targeted state.
John McCain's campaign themes and strategies
McCain recognized that change was part of the national political mood in 2008 and that the Bush administration was extremely unpopular. Therefore, he emphasized his credentials as someone who would change Washington, and he attempted to distance himself from President Bush as much as possible.
McCain tried to rely on his established image as a Republican maverick to argue that he could work with members of both parties in Congress, pointing to many instances when he had done so during his long career as a senator. He argued that his record proved that he, not Obama, would be better able to provide effective bipartisan leadership. However, his age and his long service in Washington may have led many voters to doubt that he would change Washington very much.
His selection of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate was designed to emphasize change. Palin was a fresh face on the national scene, and she had a reputation of being able to work well with Democrats in the state legislature during her short tenure as governor of Alaska. Republican strategists claimed that she was an independent maverick, just like McCain. While this choice initially seemed to benefit the Republican ticket, Palin's inability to project knowledge and a command of the issues ultimately proved to be a drag on the ticket.
McCain attempted to distance himself from president Bush by talking about times when he disagreed with the president and by pointing out that he was not part of the incumbent administration in any way. Furthermore, he criticized Obama for trying to link him to Bush, arguing during one debate that if Obama wanted to run against Bush, he should have done so in 2004, when Bush was on the ballot. However, he found it difficult to criticize the Bush administration too much, as doing so would alienate the Republican base.
Perhaps most importantly, McCain argued that he had the experience and maturity to be president, and that Obama did not. This strategy involved contrasting his own lengthy record of military and public service with Obama's short resume. Moreover, McCain used his military and political record to argue that he was a dedicated public servant who put his country above his party or his personal interests. McCain especially emphasized his considerable experience in national security matters, stating that Obama's inexperience in this area would be dangerous for the nation.
Finally, McCain argued that Obama was too liberal for America. He criticized several of Obama's major proposals, such as health care reform, as expanding the role of government beyond what most Americans wanted. Besides attacking Obama's stands on specific public policy issues, the McCain campaign also attempted to characterize Obama as far to the left by raising questions about Obama's ties to a 1960s radical, William Ayres.
The Democrats held their national convention first, in late August. Despite the intense conflict between Obama and Hillary Clinton over the nomination, and despite the disappointment of many of Clinton's supporters that she was not chosen to be the vice presidential nominee, the scene in Denver was one of relative unity among the delegates. Clinton exhorted her followers to campaign for Obama. Obama gave what most observers rated thought was an excellent acceptance speech, which he delivered not in the convention hall but before a large crowd in an football stadium. The party seemed united behind the Obama-Biden ticket. Nevertheless, Obama received only a modest post-convention bounce. Polls taken shortly after the convention showed Obama with a several point lead over McCain.
The Repubican campaign followed in early September. Just prior to the convention, McCain announced that he had selected Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate. It was a surprise selection. Palin was hardly known outside of her home state. Moreover, she lacked political experience. She was in her first term as governor, and she had not held any office of great consequence before being elected governor. Her selection seemed to undercut one of McCain's campaign strategies, which was to argue that Obama was too inexperienced to be president. However, McCain saw this as a bold move, one that would shake up the campaign. He thought that Palin would be seen as someone who would bring fresh ideas to Washington. The selection of Palin was highly popular among Republicans, especially the more conservative wing of the party. Her convention acceptance speech was enthusiastically received by the delegates. McCain received a sizable post-convention bounce. Polls showed him about even with or perhaps slightly ahead of Obama (Cohen and Balz 2008).
The initial excitement about Palin gave way to doubts, at least among many swing voters, if not among the Republican faithful. In two prominent interviews with television journalists, she seemed uninformed about many policy issues. Some of her responses to questions seemed to be simplistic and confusing. In fact, the comedian Tina Fay received rave reviews for parodying Palin on the television show Saturday Night Live. Doubts about Palin's ability to assume the presidency rose drastically.
A series of three presidential debates were to be held, along with one vice presidential debate. The first debate was scheduled for late September and was supposed to deal with foreign affairs, presumably McCain's strong suit. However, in mid-September, a serious financial crisis that had been brewing throughout the year erupted. A major financial institution, Lehman Brothers, filed for bankruptcy. The credit markets were becoming frozen. The financial crisis threatened to have severe repercussions for the entire economy. President Bush proposed immediate and drastic government intervention to prevent a complete freeze of the credit markets. Now the first debate would have to deal with economic matters as well, which undoubtedly worked to Obama's advantage.
Even worse for McCain, his reaction to this financial crisis raised doubts about his ability to handle economic matters. He initially responded to the Lehman Brothers failure by saying that the economy was fundamentally sound, words that the Obama campaign was happy to use against him. Two days before the first debate, McCain announced that he was suspending his campaign, that he was going to Washington to help pass the financial bailout legislation, and that he would not participate in the first debate. He urged Obama to do the same. Obama did not, arguing that the debate should go on because the American public needed to hear what the candidates had to say about the financial crisis. Public reaction seemed to favor Obama's position. What McCain undoubtedly hoped would be seen as a bold act of leadership was interpreted as erratic behavior by many voters and media pundits.
In the end, McCain came to the debate, which Obama decisively won. A Gallup poll found that 46% of the viewers thought that Obama was the winner, while only 34% rated McCain the winner (Newport 2008). After the debate, 30% said that they had a more favorable opinion of Obama; only 14% had a less favorable opinion. For McCain, as many voters had a less favorable opinion of him as had a more favorable one. At this point in the campaign, Obama had a lead of several points in the polls.
The next debate was between the two vice presidential candidates. Much more attention was focused on this debate than for past vice presidential debates because of the questions of Palin's knowledge and qualifications. Palin performed better in the debate than she had in her two major television interviews. She stuck to her script as much as possible, and she avoided making any serious gaffes, which reassured many Republicans. She did not, however, perform well enough to erase the doubts that many people had about her. Moreover, Biden also did well and was generally credited with being the winner of the debate, so there was no narrowing of the lead that Obama had in the polls.
The next presidential debate used a town hall format. McCain supposedly was more comfortable with this arrangement, so Republicans hoped that this would be a decisive victory for him. While McCain may have performed better in this debate than in the first one, Obama also did well. The post-debate polls showed Obama as the winner of this debate as well, by a margin of 54% to 30%, according to a CNN poll (Steinhouser 2008). Some observers felt that McCain was hurt because he appeared old as he walked around the stage, while Obama appeared young and vigorous.
The final debate was more of the same. McCain was more vigorous in his attacks on Obama, but the majority of viewers thought that Obama had done better, by a margin of 58% to 31%, according to a CNN poll (CNN 2008). Favorable opinions of Obama were up somewhat after the debate; favorable opinions of McCain dropped slightly. After three debates, McCain was clearly behind in the polls. There were no dramatic developments during the last two weeks of the campaign, and the election outcome was about as expected from the polls taken at the end of October.
More information on the campaign themes and messages of Obama and McCain can be obtained by examining their campaign speeches and televised campaign ads.