How Obama bent the arc of history.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 5 2008 2:11 AM

Yes, He Did

How Obama bent the arc of history.

CHICAGO—Barack Obama faced a lot of big crowds during his campaign. Now President-elect Obama faces his largest one: a country of 305 million.

Barack Obama at his election-night victory rally. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama at his election-night victory rally
John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

"We have a righteous wind at our back," Obama proclaimed in the closing days of the campaign. It turned out to be a gale-force wind. He won decisively with more than 350 electoral votes and 51 percent of the popular vote, the first time a Democrat has achieved a majority of the popular vote since Jimmy Carter and by the largest margin for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. * He won in working-class areas where there had once been concern about his ability to connect with voters. Obama won among women, who are 53 percent of the electorate, by 14 points. He inspired a host of new voters and young voters, who helped make him the first post-baby boomer president. They all call him Barack, and he responded by texting them on victory night: "All of this happened because of you. Thanks, Barack."

More than 200,000 people waited in Grant Park to welcome the first African-American president-elect to his new job. As Obama took his place between bulletproof glass that looked like a giant parenthesis, six beams of light shot toward the clear sky behind him. The weather was so perfect that, had it occurred earlier in the campaign, it would have spurred one of those e-mail rumors about him being "The One."

When Obama spoke, he was somber and serious. There were no jokes, and his optimism was tempered by realism. He talked of "the enormity of the task that lies ahead" and the challenges that "are the greatest of our lifetime." As he stood before 15 American flags, it didn't look like a campaign event. It was presidential. Gone were the blue placards from countless rallies. Instead, American flags waved. While the crowd waited for Obama to arrive, campaign music played. When he left the stage, the music was a more stirring anthem with a patriotic tone.

Obama wrapped his arms around the country he now leads, singing the song of its progress over the last 100 years. At the same time, he promised a renovation, a "new spirit of patriotism, of service and responsibility" as well as "a new dawn of American leadership" overseas.

He promised to be the president of all Americans. "To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn—I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president, too." John McCain praised Obama at length in his concession speech, testifying to the historic nature of the victory and Obama's ability to inspire the nation. Obama returned the compliment, saying of McCain, "He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine, and we are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader."

Obama was also careful not to gloat: "While the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress."

It was not only Barack Obama who made history—so did his strategists. They designed a plan and executed it relentlessly through a brutal primary and general election. Twice they upended the idea that no plan survives engagement with the enemy. Obama won by driving up his vote in traditional Democratic areas, and he shrunk the margins in conservative areas. They also out-hustled the competition. According to exit polls, 27 percent of voters said they were contacted by the Obama camp. Only 19 percent say they were contacted by the McCain camp.

Exit polls also indicated that race was not a factor. Where voters said race was important, they voted for Obama. Those who said race wasn't important also voted for him—in relatively the same percentages. In Ohio, Obama won among whites making less than $50,000, a group that was once supposed to be a big problem for him. In Pennsylvania cities like Scranton, Reading, and Allentown, where he was supposed to have the same problem, he won by healthy margins. "I always thought that there was a prejudice factor in the state," said Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat. "I hope we've now washed that away."

In the end, the voters favored change over experience 37 percent to 20 percent. People also seemed to vote against their economic self-interest, something liberal critics said only witless Republican voters did. Fully 70 percent said Obama would raise their taxes, while 60 percent said McCain would. They voted for Obama, anyway.

The first blow for McCain came just after 8:30 p.m. New Hampshire, the state where he had twice staged comebacks, went for Obama. In Grant Park, a young man threw his arms up in the air and twirled in the dirt: "We're going to do it!" Then 15 minutes later on the jumbo screen, Wolf Blitzer, as large as a single-family home, announced that Obama had also won Pennsylvania. The crowd erupted. McCain had put his hopes on the traditionally blue state as a break against Obama's likely wins in other states.

The next blow for McCain came in Ohio. With two days left in the campaign, Obama had visited Columbus, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. He out-organized McCain and outspent him. It paid off. There was no longer any way McCain could put together enough electoral votes. The pace picked up from there, with red states falling one by one for Obama: New Mexico, Iowa, Florida, and Virginia, where on the last night of his campaign Obama drew a crowd of 90,000, just outside Washington—miles away from the first battlefield of the Civil War. *

At the start of his campaign, Obama often concluded his speeches by telling the story of his Senate campaign and how he prevailed in the southern part of Illinois despite its history of antipathy towards blacks. He cited Martin Luther King Jr., who said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." On Tuesday, 221 years after the adoption of a Constitution that allowed slavery to continue, an African-American won the presidency. In Grant Park, as Barack Obama left the stage, you could see that arc bend.

Correction, Nov. 5, 2008: This piece incorrectly stated that Obama's victory was the first majority for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Jimmy Carter won a majority of the popular vote in 1976, with a count of 40 million to Gerald Ford's 39 million. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, Nov. 6, 2008: This story originally claimed that North Carolina had gone for Obama. As of midday ET on Nov. 6, the race was still too close to call. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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