Historic Election 2008: For the Record Books

Watershed election breaks records in race, gender, age and fundraising.

November 3, 2008, 11:52 AM

Nov. 4, 2008 — -- First, most, longest. Election 2008 has redefined American politics in a rainbow of historic records that are likely to resonate across the cultural landscape for decades to come.

The historic campaign -- nearly two years long -- was marked by breakthroughs in race, gender, age, fundraising and use of technology.

The primaries were the most contested, the debates the most contentious and the cost the highest -- nearly $1 billion by today's Election Day. In earlier primaries, voter turnout soared and, in the case of the Democrats, broke all records.

By day's end, an all-time high of 136 to 140 million Americans are expected to have voted. And in the growing trend of early voting in 32 states, almost one- third of those had cast early ballots before Election Day.

Facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and fighting two foreign wars, 9 million Americans registered to vote for the first time with an excitement not witnessed in generations.

Marked by both passion and polarization, the race drew legions of African Americans, youth and disaffected independents who had historically not played such a large role in determining the victors.

"We won't know for years to come, but the potential is that 2008 is a realigning election, measured not only in voter registration rolls but in how we see ourselves," said Richard Norton Smith, presidential scholar at George Washington University.

"And if a new president can foster and begin to break down that 50-50 mutually suspicious, if not hostile, climate that we have grown up with in this country in the last couple of presidencies, we can become an even larger and less polarized country, defined less by our differences and more by our common needs," he said.

As polls for this 56th election close, either the first African American or the first female will be elected to the presidency or the vice presidency, top offices that have been held by white men since the inauguration of George Washington in 1789.

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama and Republican vice presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin landed spots on the tickets of the major parties after two decades of increased numbers of women and minorities entering the political arena.

Many of these relative newcomers to politics helped Obama raise an eye-popping $659 million, more than double the fundraising of both John Kerry and George W. Bush in 2004.

This election marks the first time since 1928 that no president or vice president was on the ballot at any stage of the campaign. Both McCain and Obama would also be the first sitting U.S. senator elected since John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1960 and only the second in history (Warren Harding, who died in office, was the first).

2008 Historic Presidential Campaign

Each was also the first to have been born outside the continental U.S. -- McCain in the Panama Canal Zone and Obama in Hawaii. Each candidate will be the first from their respective home states, Arizona and Hawaii.

At 72, McCain would be the oldest first-term president and only the second to be divorced, following Ronald Reagan, as well as the first to have served in the Vietnam War. Palin, his vice president, would be the first major-party candidate from Alaska.

If Obama, 47, wins, it will be because he unified a broad coalition of minorities, youth, independents and so-called "Obamacans or Baracafella" -- moderate Republicans. His running mate, Joe Biden, would be the first Roman Catholic vice president.

For the first time in a half century, voters may also tip the balance in Congress to the Democrats in what may be the largest gain since the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"We're all fixated on the obvious firsts, like race and gender, but the ending is as important as the beginning," said Smith. "We are looking at the end of 40 years of conservative dominance in American politics, which began with Richard Nixon in 1968 and was strengthened by Ronald Reagan."

Obama has a narrow lead in the opinion polls in traditional red states like Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, which have not voted blue since Dixie-crats moved away from the party after the Civil Rights Act in 1964. That political shift was solidified in 1984 when Ronald Reagan carried the Old South.

An Obama victory could signal the end of that era, one which President Lyndon B. Johnson invoked when he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation. According to historians, Johnson put down his pen and told an aide, "We have lost the South for a generation."

"That generation is over," civil rights activist Rev. Sharpton told ABCNews.com. "Whites and blacks have fought to change that. But we've seen a progression of black mayors and winners in statewide races. It's an idea whose time has come and will vindicate us if we use it for substantive change."

Still, Obama was also offered Secret Service protection earlier than any other previous candidate, which some say underscores the racism that still exists in America.

The Constitution was amended in 1870 to allow blacks to vote, but it wasn't until the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1965 that they gained full access to the ballot. The first minor party black presidential candidate was the late New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm in 1972, followed in 1984 and 1988 by civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson, who sought but failed to obtain the Democratic nomination. Today, the Congress has 42 African Americans and two states have black governors.

Progress for Minority Groups

Today, African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, just behind Hispanics at nearly 15 percent.

Sharpton, who ran his own unsuccessful campaign for president in 2004, said Obama's being named to a major ticket is a watershed event.

"If Obama wins, it will be the first time I can honestly look every child in the eye and say, 'you can grow up to be the president of the United States,'" he said. "It fulfills part of Martin Luther King's dream to be judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin."

But 2008 is a watershed for more than African American politics.

Women, who gained the right to vote even later than blacks, in 1920, shattered "18 million cracks" in the glass ceiling with the hard-fought candidacy of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. Her campaign came on the heels of Nancy Pelosi becoming the first female speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2007.

As the first Republican woman on the presidential ticket, Palin's nomination came two decades after that of former New York Democrat Geraldine Ferraro, who ran unsuccessfully for vice president in 1984.

"Everything has changed because of Hillary's success, particularly in the end where she was so persistent and strong -- she moved women across the country," said Marie Wilson, founder of The White Project, which is dedicated to advancing women in leadership roles. "She made progress for all of us."

Not only did Palin and Clinton serve as role models for aspiring young women, but so did the newscasters, according to Wilson. Ratings and interest were strong for both news and comedy shows led by females.

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow saw her election show double in ratings in just one month; both CNN's Campbell Brown and CBS's Katie Couric got high marks for their combative interviews.

"We are seeing women as experts," Wilson told ABCNews.com. "Women are being looked to as decision makers."

Even Palin's self-described "pitbull in lipstick" image inspired, according to Wilson. "Women are motivated by her confidence."

Not only women, but youth have been electrified by the 2008 race. An estimated 6.5 million new voters under the age of 30 participated in the primaries, according to the Center for Information and Research on Learning and Engagement.

Obama has turned to social networking tools like Facebook and text messaging to engage new voters. McCain has appealed directly to youth on MTV and used YouTube for political advertising.

Interest has intensified as record numbers of viewers, both young and old, have pushed up ratings for comedy shows like "Saturday Night Live" to watch spoofs of both candidates and their running mates.

Youth and Technology

Technology, especially cell phones, has also helped fuel the youth vote. "It's provided a way to reach people at a speed and depth that is unprecedented," said Sujatha Jahagirdar, director for Student PIRG's New Voters Project.

"The excitement is palpable," she told ABCNews.com. In 16 out of 17 states where PIRG did exit polls in the primaries, youth turnout had doubled since 2000.

"The level of participation that we've seen is unprecedented and born out by the numbers," she said. "The reason was the competitive primary, and it was on both sides of the aisle. Civic engagement is a post-9/11 phenomenon -- the realization that politics matters to their lives."

"The lesson that comes out of the election is when you pay attention to young people, they pay attention to you," said Jahagirdar.

Political observers say these new demographics, combined with a dissatisfaction with the Bush White House may change the face of American politics for yet another generation.

"People are fed up with the status quo -- they are not happy with the economy or the war," said Smith. "They are fed up with the way politics works or doesn't work."

Still, like the swing of the pendulum in presidential elections past, the changes wrought by this powerhouse election may shift the political culture -- but not necessarily forever.

"There is no such thing as a permanent coalition, a permanent majority or a permanent anything," said Smith. "But that is not to minimize the magnitude of what's transpiring. This is not insignificant simply because it can't last forever."