Sweeping demographic changes in the American electorate are undercutting old assumptions about swing voters and battleground states and making the 60-day general-election campaign that starts this morning even less predictable than usual.
The nation is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, a diversity that has spread across the country. Aging Baby Boomers remain the biggest generational group in the electorate, but second in size are the Millennials — 18- to 31-year-olds who have distinctive attitudes toward race and politics. In the space of a generation, Americans have seen dramatic changes in the roles of women, the structure of families and the nature of the workplace. There has been a revolution in the technology that delivers information and knits communities.
Presidential nominees John McCain and Barack Obama personify that changing nation in striking ways. In age, race and life experience — even in use of innovative technology in the campaign — they mirror a nation in transition.
Some analysts are predicting that the 2008 election — like the one in 1980 that brought the election of Ronald Reagan as president and set the nation on a more conservative course — looms as a landmark contest in which the country is receptive to change.
"This is a pivotal moment in the sense that the politics is catching up to the demographic changes," says William Frey, a Brookings Institution scholar who analyzes population trends.
Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin calls Democrat Obama — who's 47, biracial and multiethnic — "the face of the new generation" who has mobilized millions of younger voters this year.
But Garin notes that some, especially older white voters, find Obama's message and background — he is a first-term Illinois senator who spent nearly as long as a community organizer as he has in Congress — unpersuasive and even discomfiting.
In contrast, Republican McCain, a 72-year-old white man and decorated Navy veteran, has represented Arizona in the Senate for a quarter-century.
Their messages contrast, too: McCain attacks Obama for inexperience ("Is he ready to lead?" GOP ads ask) while Obama promises change from what he says are eight years of failed leadership by Republicans.
In some ways, cultural trends have helped both candidates. Obama's hope of becoming the first African-American president has been boosted by younger voters who seem less polarized about race than their elders; his candidacy probably wouldn't have been realistic a quarter-century ago. Changing attitudes about age have helped McCain, who would be the oldest president elected to a first term.
"We no longer say someone is too old or too young" for a job, says Bernadette Budde, a political analyst with the Business Industry Political Action Committee. "We have a culture that believes Tony Bennett and Miley Cyrus have equal amounts to contribute to the world of song."
Both candidates have balanced the demographic makeup of their tickets with their choices of running mates.
McCain picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a working mother 28 years his junior whose husband is part Alaska Native. Obama picked Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, a white man and six-term senator who is 18 years older than him.
Even so, national campaigns are usually all about the top of the ticket. Will the McCain-Obama election be a turning point in American politics?
Some analysts say yes.