The 2008 United States Presidential Election took place on Tuesday, November 4, 2008, with Barack Obama being voted in as the next President of the United States. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democratic Party nominee, with Senator Joe Biden of Delaware as his Vice Presidential running mate defeated Senator John McCain of Arizona, the Republican candidate, and his Vice Presidential nominee, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.
Differences between 2008 and other elections
In 2008, CNN-YouTube held the first debate in which the questions asked of the nominees in each party came primarily from YouTube viewer submitted videos. The debates received high ratings, however, CNN was criticized for not picking questions that were 'tough' or pertinent enough. One such example was during the Democratic Debate, when CNN chose to ask a question from a snow man, talking about global warming. During the Republican debate, some claimed that many of the questions were from Democratic supporters just meant to embarrass the Republican candidates. For example, a question over whether or not homosexuals should serve in the U.S. military was asked by retired general and gay activist Keith Kerr, an adviser to Hillary Clinton's campaign.
The internet has also played a major role in the election, with then-Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul and Democratic candidate Barack Obama being very active on the internet.
In 2004, 64% of voters aged 18–29 were registered to vote. This year 75% of voters in that age group are registered. This demographic usually favors Democrats.
Fewer people were undecided this election than in most previous elections. As of the beginning of October, 2008 approximately 6-8% of poll respondents were undecided, an amount that continued to decline as the election drew closer.
The turnout was about normal, except for higher than usual rates among blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and voters under 30—all Obama groups. The turnout of evangelicals and whites was similar to 2004. There have been allegations of Democrats driving voters around to different voting stations, and as these are Obama groups, this would strengthen the voter turnout of this demographic.
|Polling Outfit||Date||Sample*||Obama (D)||McCain (R)|
|Rasmussen Tracking||11/01 - 11/03||3000 LV||52||46|
|Zogby Tracking||11/01 - 11/03||1200 LV||54||43|
|Gallup Tracking Traditional||10/31 - 11/02||2516 LV||53||42|
|Gallup Tracking Expanded||10/31 - 11/02||2480 LV||53||42|
- RV refers to registered voters, LV refers to likely voters.
McCain vs. Obama
McCain had the early edge, wrapping up the Republican nomination before Obama was known to be the choice of the Democrats, but this was one of the few advantages he has had. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama raised far more money than McCain, and the Democratic primary saw a surge of new voters coming out leading to a large increase in the rolls of Democrats. From the historical position of a generally equal number of Republicans and Democrats, the numbers have now tilted 41% Democrat to only 32% Republican. From the time that Obama was declared the nominee, opinion polling showed him with a modest advantage over McCain in terms of who the voters would choose to be their next President.
Obama's strategy was to tie McCain to George Bush, a very unpopular President, even though McCain was not a part of the Bush administration and often clashed with Bush during his time as senator. McCain, for his part, had to walk a fine line with accepting praise from the President to woo conservatives, while at the same time keeping enough distance so as to not alienate moderates. When possible, McCain went after Obama's lack of foreign policy experience.
The trends heavily favored the Democrats, especially after their major gains in 2006. Overall, Democrat candidates have a +10% advantage over Republicans in a 'generic' election - the current unpopular President is a Republican, and the economy is treading water. Also, based on statistical percentages of articles on each candidate, Obama was being focused on by the press far more than McCain. When McCain chastised Obama for his lack of foreign policy experience and that he hadn't been to Iraq or Afghanistan in years, Obama's campaign set up for him to take a trip to both countries. While this is expected in politics, the decision of every major network to send a team of reporters to follow him was unprecedented. Obama spoke to 200,000 people in Berlin in a highly covered speech. McCain spoke to 50,000 in Buffalo shortly thereafter and barely got a whisper. Obama's numbers started to rise, but a good deal of the populace was noticing the disparity as 48% of those polled felt the press was trying to help Obama win.
Obama seemed pleased to coast on his advantages, but McCain realized he needed to shake things up. He scored by pushing offshore drilling for oil during a time when oil prices were climbing almost daily. Obama rejected the idea, but the poll numbers started to show a greater percentage of Americans warming to the concept and McCain's numbers started to improve. Obama announced he would accept some measure of offshore drilling, and McCain's momentum was halted and his gains retreated by a couple of points. McCain started an ad campaign that acknowledged Obama's celebrity status, but asking what it meant. A few days later at the start of August he called out Obama for 'playing the race card' when Obama made a reference to McCain and Bush trying to scare people because he (Obama) doesn't look like other Presidents on dollar bills. The Democrats fired back, but quickly let the issue drop when poll numbers showed that most voters did consider Obama's statement to be racist. The bounce for Obama after the Berlin speech shrank back to pre-trip levels. While Obama continued to enjoy a slight lead in the polls, McCain continued to keep the race close without either candidate breaking away.
In mid-August, both candidates came together at the invitation of Pastor Rick Warren where each was asked a series of the same questions dealing both with political and personal views. While not a debate, it was the first televised forum where both candidates had a chance to express themselves and their positions. Obama hoped to appeal to Christian conservatives by expressing a religious side while McCain hoped to solidify the conservative base by sharing his own conservative and religious credentials. The difference in style between the two was evident as Obama spent more time explaining and expounding on his positions while McCain was more straightforward and received more laughs with his candid speaking style. The polling numbers continued as they had been.
There was a bounce at the start of the Democratic convention, but not what was expected as McCain suddenly drew even in the race. The friction between Hillary Clinton and Obama as well as the perceived slight of Hillary when Biden was chosen as the Vice Presidential candidate hurt Obama at a time when his approval was expected to climb. McCain then made a mistake by airing an ad of Hillary Clinton that 'supported' him. Clinton was set to speak at the convention and it was no secret that there was bad blood between her and Obama and it was widely believed that her support for Obama would be lukewarm at best. Instead, apparently galvanized by McCain's hubris before her speech, she came out strongly for Obama and rallied those who supported her. Obama's pre-convention edge returned. Obama followed it up with a very strong speech the next day in a huge stadium with fireworks and a Greek temple. Dick Morris, a former Bill Clinton political strategist who gave advice to the Republicans in 2008, felt that Obama had done such a good job reaching out to the groups that he needed that he would pull ahead by double-digits. In order to suppress the bounce from the convention, McCain announced his Vice Presidential candidate the next day, a woman, Alaskan governor Sarah Palin. The bounce for Obama was muted at first, but increased in the following days to surpass pre-convention levels, especially as Sarah Palin came under heavy attack in the media.
The edge continued as the Republican convention began. Losing a day to the hurricane, their shortened convention came out strong as well, emphasizing John McCain as a patriot and a maverick for change who is tested and will do what is right for the country regardless of political affiliation. It was notable for the secondary role that the sitting President played, talking only briefly and barely being mentioned after that. The convention tied McCain to Ronald Reagan, a popular Republican President who was able to gain the support of a good number of conservative Democrats, an ability that McCain would badly need to emulate. While the convention had very high ratings starting with Palin's well received speech, it was unclear what the impact would be in the polls. Indeed, Obama continued to lead directly afterward, but that soon changed with a turn of about 8 points and a slim lead for McCain. The Republican convention had actually more than balanced out the powerful Democratic convention.
While Obama had stated that his campaign would avoid negative advertising, as it became clear that the bounce from the convention was continuing to last and he might lose the election, his campaign turned more forcefully to negative advertising. In ads aired since the Republican convention through mid September, McCain's ads were about Obama 56% of the time, but Obama's ads were about his opponents 77% of the time. Obama also received a large boost from the press which vigorously attacked McCain, but even more so Palin. Obama appeared on The O'Reilly Factor and was treated with civility and respect, even if not with agreement. McCain and his wife appeared on The View and were treated to openly antagonistic attacks. The constant negative barrage and reporting slowly moved the numbers back to even.
As the negative articles on Palin continued to intensify, some of which just quoted celebrities who had never met her calling her "whacko" or a "hater of women", her first major interview with Gibson was a turning point. Gibson asked Palin about the Bush Doctrine, but wouldn't define it for her even as she asked questions for clarifications. When she then answered with her understanding, Gibson rebuked her by implying that she misunderstood the doctrine. In truth, since the term is only a press invention, it has taken on different meanings at different times and the definition that Palin gave matched one that Gibson himself had used years earlier. Nevertheless, it was a moment and was jumped on by the press. Those who saw the interview voted heavily that they were now less likely to vote for Palin. The attack on her had muted her effectiveness, even if it was unjustified.
Stemming the tide of the McCain campaign's lead became a strong swing for Obama with a series of events that went to the Democratic nominee's favor. The polls began to tack to Obama's favor with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and a subsequent 500-point drop in the Dow Jones Index. Then, President Bush sounded a major alarm on the economy and proposed a huge 700 billion dollar rescue plan for the mortgage industry, which sent shock waves through the American populace and swept them with even more fear on the economic picture. Bush called both Presidential nominees to meet with him and Congress. It gave Obama a boost in legitimacy, his previous Achilles' heel. While he had a weak record in accomplishments and showing leadership, the chance to be propelled to a position of prominence handed it to him on a silver platter. Moreover, the plan was more problematic among Republicans than it was among Democrats, giving Obama another boost merely by supporting it while putting McCain on more shaky ground. Both candidates supported it once again blurring McCain's advantage in experience if both men were seen as interchangeable in their reaction.
McCain chose to suspend his campaign until a deal on the rescue package was reached, a mistake. The Democrats could add pork to the plan and make it even more unpalatable to the Republicans, and they did. As the first debate loomed and no deal had been reached, McCain was in a quandary. He chose to attend the debate under the view that the plan was well under way to being passed. After the debate the plan was actually defeated and wouldn't be adopted, with more changes, until the following week.
McCain's debate with Obama went well and he was viewed as having done better than expected. Unfortunately for him, Obama was also viewed as doing better than expected and was seen as looking Presidential, further cementing his standing and locking in a lead in the polls that had become rather substantial. The Vice Presidential debate was the most watched in history and Palin was given high marks for her performance, but unfortunately for the Republican ticket, Biden was also on his game that night and also came across well. There were no changes in the polling numbers and the number of undecided voters began to quickly dwindle. The second and third debates caused little change as well.
With Obama spending 110 million dollars on TV advertising in October alone, including 30 minute specials on each of the major networks, McCain was hard pressed to make up the necessary ground to win the election after being outspent by 3 to 1 for TV adds over that time period. He couldn't count on regular TV to help put in a good word for him either, as late night political jokes are running at a pace of 7 jokes against McCain/Palin for every 1 joke against Obama/Biden and a study of news stories on McCain and Obama since the end of the conventions found that 57% of news stories about McCain were negative while only 29% were for Obama. A later study by the independent Pew Research Center found that the discrepancy had grown even worse. McCain had 57% of the articles about him negative while only 14% were positive, while Obama had more positive articles than negative. The only network to achieve a balance, 40% negative for both, was Fox News.
McCain's team emphasized to convince the electorate of the long-term leadership and experience that John McCain has shown in two decades of government service while emphasizing the relative untested nature of Barack Obama.
Obama's team stressed that Obama is the candidate of fresh ideas while downplaying his relative inexperience compared to the more seasoned McCain. When possible, McCain is lumped together with George Bush, an unpopular President.
With more limited funding than his Democratic rival, McCain had favored open town hall meetings to attract the greatest number of people. He is focusing his advertising on swing states. He also asked for open debates with Obama of the Lincoln-Douglas variety where candidates can talk directly to each other, but this was not accepted by the Democratic camp which prefers the current structured format.
McCain will highlight his record of leadership, his service to his country and stress that as President he can be counted on to keep America safe from outside threats. McCain's strongest supporters are the elderly - the group that most wants stability.
McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his Vice Presidential nominee was a departure from what was expected and helped to show that he would go down paths that the Republican party had not done in the past. McCain has touted Palin's record of standing up to the Alaska Republican party when she resigned from an Ethics Commission in protest over a lack of ethics of fellow commissioners, as well as when she ran against, and beat, then-incumbent Governor Frank Murkowski in the Republican primary in 2006. McCain will continue to tout her as a "maverick" to complement his own maverick image that he is trying to emphasize. Last, by choosing a female running mate, McCain hoped to pick up the votes of female voters disaffected with the perceived slight of Hillary Clinton by Obama. Prior to the start of the Democratic convention, 30% of Hillary's supporters had still not backed Obama and there was a good deal of bad blood between the two.
With the unfolding of the campaign season and watching the Democratic strategy and how it was playing out in the press and polls, the McCain campaign decided not to cede the moniker of change to Obama, but rather to take it upon themselves by emphasizing that McCain has a track record of change - while Obama does not. The McCain campaign feels it needs to have the voters ask who can be trusted more to get the job done, and if that occurs, then they have the advantage.
With the selection of Palin, and the energy it has brought to the conservative base, McCain has taken to larger rallies, as opposed to town hall meetings and press conferences. By mid-September, he had gone four weeks without a town hall, and three weeks without a press conference, instead sticking to larger engagements, appearing alongside his vice presidential nominee, with larger crowds than he had experienced earlier in his campaign.
Democrats are confident that the low popularity of President Bush and particularly Operation Iraqi Freedom, which John McCain supports, puts them in a highly favorable position for 2008. They have been cautious in the Iraq arena realizing that 'The Surge' worked and they were on the wrong end of that issue. Focus is being put on a timeline for troops coming home, a position that most of the American population favors.
Democrats believe it is their race to lose, but also realize they had a good chance to win the last two Presidential elections and came up short each time. General wisdom also states that a poor economy favors Obama, so they will emphasize the dire times in this area. As in past elections, differences between those who have obtained a high income level and those who have not will be emphasized. In fact, the Democratic strategy in many ways mirrors that of their strategy in 1992 when the Democrat-controlled Congress deliberately caused economic disruption, knowing full well that the public would blame sitting president George H.W. Bush, and thereby allowing Bill Clinton to win that year's presidential race.
Favored by the young, Democrats will try hard to encourage and get out the young vote, a task that has proven more difficult than expected in the last two election cycles. To their advantage, Obama made his vice presidential pick via text message to cell phone numbers registered on the site. The announcement went to 3 million cell phones, a useful database for "Get Out The Vote" (GOTV) efforts, when voters may not be home or reachable on their landline.
As an extension of the DNC's strategy in the 2006 elections, led by Howard Dean, Barack Obama has been working towards a "50-state strategy." The campaign is working to place campaign offices throughout the country with a focus on voter registration. The increase in the rolls of Democratic voters from the primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Obama played out well for the Democrats and puts pressure on Senator McCain even in typically red states, and more specifically, "Lean Republican" states, to use the Cook Political Report's term. In addition, with a fundraising advantage, Obama is airing ads in those tight states forcing McCain to make decisions about whether to use funds to match ads and campaign efforts in those states or rely on historical results that those states will support him and focus funds in traditional toss-up states instead.
Barack Obama had a significant edge over Hillary Clinton in the fundraising department during their contest for the Democratic nomination, but both actually set records for raising money and both raised far more money than John McCain. McCain didn't have to spend as much since he locked up the Republican nomination much earlier than Obama locked up the Democratic. Both Obama and McCain said they would accept government funds—which would also cap how much the candidates could raise on their own—but Obama, who could presumably raise more through his own sources, changed his mind and later declined. Much of McCain's war chest will come from the Republican Party in general, which has more money to spend than their Democratic counterparts. McCain's campaign raised $47 million in August, a very sizable figure for him so far and a personal record, but not as strong as Obama's best months. In the same time period, Obama set a record with $66 million. Obama, still having an edge in fundraising that has continued throughout his run for the Presidency, saw $10 million collected the day after Sarah Palin's strongly received convention speech, a new one day record. The Palin announcement has been good for John McCain's fundraising as well.
Obama set a new record of $150 million raised in September and over $600 million overall. Obama's camp does not release information on who contributes to the campaign.
Democratic National Convention
For a more detailed treatment, see 2008 Democratic National Convention.
The 2008 Democratic National Convention was held in Denver, Colorado, from August 25 to August 27 at Pepsi Center. There, Senator Obama and his running mate were selected to be the party nominee's. Barack Obama will accepted the party's nomination in front of a crowd of more than 75,000 in a free, open event held at INVESCO Field at Mile High, in a platform resemblant to a Greek temple. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is the Permanent Chair of the Convention.
The convention had a rocky start as friction between supporters of Obama and the Clintons was not resolved. Instead of Obama getting a bump in the polls, his support actually declined. The Democrats also seemed to be at odds on finding a unifying strategy for how hard to attack John McCain and how to present it. As Democratic pundit James Carville said in an interview on CNN, "If this party has a message, it's done a <heck> of a job hiding it tonight, I promise you that."
A bleak convention was turned around by the Clintons. Infighting between Obama and Hillary continued through the day of her speech, but a comprise was reached, and, beyond expectations, she gave a rousing speech for Obama - possibly as an angry response to McCain's latest ad that showed her 'supporting' him. Bill Clinton the next night also praised Obama, something that he failed to effectively do in 2000 for Al Gore when he centered on his accomplishments and gave little more than lip service to Gore with statements amounting to 'and Al Gore was there too'. The convention, possibly remembering that, gave him the topic he was to speak on instead of choosing his own. Clinton was angered, but it worked. He came through. By the time Obama spoke on the last night, the theme that was missing at first was clear, and Obama mixed a message of attacking McCain with the need for change and even outlining some expensive programs that would appeal to the target populace who has been lukewarm to him. From a political point of view, the convention did what it was supposed to.
Republican National Convention
For a more detailed treatment, see 2008 Republican National Convention.
The 2008 Republican National Convention was held in Saint Paul, Minnesota from September 1 (Labor Day) until September 4. The presumptive nominee was Senator McCain. The location has political significance in that Minnesota will likely be a close state during the general election, as will its neighboring states Wisconsin and Iowa.
The convention schedule had to be altered due to the upcoming landfall of Hurricane Gustav. The first day almost entirely focused on raising money for Hurricane relief. This led to a shortened three day convention instead of four and there was some shuffling of who was speaking on which day to accommodate the suddenly shortened time span. In a surprise, George W. Bush was only delivered an eight-minute speech by satellite. In another surprise Sarah Palin's speech was watched by as many people as saw Obama give his acceptance speech on the closing night of the Democratic convention, as over 40 million people tuned in. She was considered the highlight of the convention, even surpassing John McCain's speech the next day, and was noted for doing an exceptional job. Recognizing the strong asset that they have in her, the Republicans made reference to her many times on the last day of the convention. McCain, not known for being comfortable reading prepared speeches in a convention hall, delivered a solid speech. While Obama continued to enjoy a lead in the polls, it changed quickly thereafter to a slight McCain-Palin edge. The Republican convention more than canceled out a very powerful Democratic convention.
Progressives for Obama shares a huge membership overlap with the Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS), a group of former Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) members and sympathisers. MDS re-founded SDS in 2006 for a new generation of college students and functions as a support group for SDS's 130 college chapters. Independent researcher Trevor Louden refers to MDS as "the brains behind the SDS brawn." The reconstituted SDS was very prominent in the violence at the Republican National Convention at St Paul. The founder of ACORN, Wade Rathke, denouncd an FBI informer who foiled a terrorist plot to kill delegates at the Republican Convention.
Vice Presidential Candidates
Democratic Vice-Presidential Candidate
In Mid-January 2008, Larry Sinclair posted a video on YouTube regarding his specific allegations of sex and drug use with candidate Barack Obama. On 8 February 8, 2008, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden filed an Indictment against Larry Sinclair charging him with theft of less than $1,000 and, anomalously, for an extradition warrant. In early March Larry Sinclair contacted an attorney for advice as he was receiving death threats after the murder of a homosexual member of Obama's church, Donald Young. On 18 June, 2008, Sinclair held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., alleging a sexual encounter and drug use with Barack Obama in 1999. Sinclair was arrested at the National Press Club on the Delaware warrant and extradited to Delaware five days later. Two months later, on August 23, Joe Biden was named by Barack Obama as his choice as the vice-presidential candidate. Five days later Beau Biden dropped the charges against Larry Sinclair on insufficient evidence and Sinclair was released from custody.
Republican Vice-Presidential Candidate
- Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska was announced as John McCain's choice early on Friday, August 29, the day after the Democratic convention ended. A surprise choice not even considered by the press to be on McCain's short list, her selection caught the political world off guard. It had been expected that Mitt Romney would earn the honor, but McCain had other ideas. At first denigrated by the people in the Obama campaign, Obama's own statement was one of cautious neutrality to feel out what impact her selection would have on the race.
In an interesting twist, the selection of the Vice Presidential candidates changed the dynamics of the race. By Obama picking Biden, he helped to fill the hole that McCain had been attacking dealing with a lack of foreign policy experience. McCain's strongest point, experience, would lose some of its luster. But the selection of Biden, and the passing over of Hillary Clinton, left another opening. By aligning himself with someone who has been a Democratic stalwart, Obama's claim to change became less pronounced. McCain seized upon that to select a Vice President that no one expected, and a woman, and steal some of the Democratic thunder. Her lack of foreign policy experience would cut into the experience angle that had been in play earlier, but her own maverick streak in becoming governor by ousting another Republican, combined with John McCain's maverick choice in selecting her led to a new emphasis on McCain's own maverick past. Palin arguably had more "executive" / managerial experience than either McCain, Biden or, notably, Obama. Suddenly he saw an opportunity to steal the moniker of change that Obama had been wearing, and he went for it. Such a change in position occurring from the Vice Presidential selection is rare in Presidential politics.
For a more detailed treatment, see 2008 Presidential Debates.
There have been three presidential debates for the 2008 election season. The first debate on September 26 discussed "Foreign Policy & National Security" and also dealt at length with the economic crisis. The result was a statistical draw where both candidates did better than expected in the eyes of the public. The longer term impact worked out well for Obama who already had a lead going in, and benefited from solidifying that position.
The second debate on October 7, followed a town hall-style. The questions came from audience members and the Internet, as chosen by the moderator. Again the result was a statistical draw as far as who was considered to be the winner. But with time running out for McCain, he needed something to make the people move his way, and that required a clear breakthrough that never happened
The final debate was held on October 15 concerned "Domestic and Economic Policy." Both candidates were again viewed as having done well, which was a tactical defeat for McCain as the poll numbers showed only small changes.
Vice Presidential Debate
There was one vice presidential debate held on October 2. Palin did much better than expected, but Biden was also in top form. No clear winner emerged and the poll numbers remained largely unchanged, a strategic win for the Democratic ticket that only had to maintain their lead to win the election. The number of people who watched the debate was an alltime record for a Vice Presidential debate, and was viewed by more people than any of the three Presidential debates.
Third parties and Independents
As usual there were a number of third party candidates, but none made much of an impact. Briefly the Libertarian Bob Barr had enough strength to become a spoiler for McCain. He faded quickly. See United States Presidential Election, 2008 -- Third Party Candidates.
For expanded primary information, see United States Presidential Election, 2008 - Primaries
The primary season for both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party officially began on January 3, 2008 with the Iowa Caucuses and ended on June 3, 2008. The 2008 election cycle saw a major shift in the primary election calendar, frontloading many primaries into early February.
John McCain had to get his footing at first, but was pretty much assured the Republican nomination after Super Tuesday. Barack Obama had a much tougher road, but rode out a string of victories in February to eventually outlast Clinton and take the nomination. During that time he had raised more money than any other candidate in history giving him a huge boost, a trend that would continue into the general election.
- Abramowitz, Allen I. and Larry J. Sabato. The 2008 Elections (2008), state by state statistical analysis
- Balz, Dan, and Haynes Johnson. The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election (2009), by leading reporters with inside information
- Nelson, Michael. The Elections of 2008 (2009), factual summary except and text search
- Todd, Chuck, and Sheldon Gawiser. How Barack Obama Won: A State-by-State Guide to the Historic 2008 Presidential Election (2009) analysis of exit polls for each state excerpt and text search
- Offshore Drilling poll
- After Palin speech, Obama has record $10 million day
- Obama File 30: Former Terrorists Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn Involved in Key Pro-Obama Organisation, Trevor Louden, New Zeal blog, September 21, 2008.
- Common Ground Infiltrator, Wade Rathke: Chief Organizer Blog, January 31, 2009. Retrieved March 14, 2010.
- ACORN Founder Wade Rathke Wanted Terrorist Attack on Republican Convention to Succeed, Matthew Vadum, American Spectator, 9.13.09