Passionate race drives a massive turnout

— -- The tug of history, concern about the economy and a pair of compelling candidates propelled voters to the polls Tuesday, putting new turnout records in reach and electing Democrat Barack Obama to the presidency.

Voting experts said turnout could match or exceed the high-water mark set in 1960, when Democrat John Kennedy faced Republican Richard Nixon and nearly 64% of eligible citizens voted. They also predicted record turnout among blacks and among voters under 30.

Black voters accounted for 13% of the electorate, up 2 percentage points from 2004, in surveys of voters as they left the polls. Young voters increased their share from 17% to 18%. The two groups overwhelmingly supported Obama. For black voters, it was nearly unanimous.

Curtis Gans, head of American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate, said voters have not been as massively dissatisfied with their president, the economy or the direction of the country since 1932.

That mood drove turnout, he said, as did Obama's intensive get-out-the-vote efforts and "strong affirmative feelings" about him among voters.

A final tally of turnout hinged on hard vote counts from all states, which could take weeks. Based on returns Tuesday night from five states, "We should see roughly an 8% bump in turnout" over 2004, said Donald Green, director of Yale's Institution for Social and Policy Studies. That would take it to a record 65%.

More than half of Colorado and Nevada voters had already voted by Election Day, as had about 40% in Florida and North Carolina. States without widespread early voting, such as Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Virginia, reported long lines Tuesday.

Robert Ware, 63, an election monitor at the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners, visited six polling places by 10 a.m. and found more people in line than in 2000 and 2004 combined. "The past election was a trade wind blowing," he said. "This feels like a hurricane."

Issues, history pull voters

At polling stations across the country, people said they were concerned about jobs and health care, moral values and experience. Many were first-time voters drawn by the sour economy or Obama's historic quest.

Black Americans were acutely aware of a moment they could hardly believe had come: a black nominee on a major-party ticket. Robbie Sellers, 34, waiting to vote in Detroit, said her father, 84, already had voted for Obama. "He never would have dreamed of this day," she said.

Heavy black registration and turnout in North Carolina helped Obama run well in the traditionally GOP state. "It's really a major event," said Mary Chance, 60, a first-time voter from Raleigh.

In Virginia, Sonja Crisp, 41, waited to vote at a middle school down the road from Reb Yank Drive in a town, Manassas, that was the site of two major Civil War battles. An Obama win, she said, would mean that finally "we are equal with anyone."

Republican John McCain won a vote from Carol Clauss, 40, an executive secretary from Tampa. "I wanted someone who has experience," she said. Camille Smith, 41, of Sterling Heights, Mich., a mother of four, said family values kept her in the GOP fold. "McCain is not for abortion," she said.

In Parker, Colo., Peter Thurmes, 51, voted for McCain three weeks after he was laid off as a construction superintendent. He said businesses would hire fewer people under Obama, because "they know they're going to be spending more on taxes."

Obama elicited the first vote ever from David Gonzalez, 44, a Denver painter who said he can no longer find work and has slept in a church for three weeks since he and his girlfriend became unable to afford their rent. Gonzalez said he was turned off by politics in the past, but "I see good things in Obama. I feel in my heart that he means well for this country."

Young people get involved

In Missouri, Saint Louis University opened the first campus polling station in memory. Scott Smith, dean of students, said the campus had a record 2,200 new voters, and 250 people were in line at the 6 a.m. poll opening.

Sophomore Kasia Sullivan, 19, a McCain backer, said the presidential election was all the talk on campus. "There's more excitement among young people than there ever has been," she said.

Tim Pilkenton, 24, of Raleigh, a National Guardsman who has been deployed to Kuwait and Germany while trying to finish engineering studies at Wake Technical Community College, said young people were key for Obama. "Every person I know" voted for Obama, he said, including many first-time voters.

People age 18 to 29 are 21% of the U.S. population, said youth vote expert Peter Levine at Tufts University, so at 18% of the electorate, "They're not punching up to their weight." On the other hand, he said, they're boosting their share even as other ages turn out in growing numbers.

As for turnout, Levine said 55% of eligible people under 30 voted in 1972, the first year 18-to-20-year-olds could vote. That's the record and "they could easily beat that" in 2008, he said.

The national exit poll showed Obama won 66% of voters under 30, higher than Ronald Reagan's 59% in 1984 and the highest in data available since 1976.

A landside for black voters

Fully 95% of black voters backed Obama, the exit poll showed — breaking the record of 90% for Walter Mondale in 1984. Their 13% share of the electorate was also a record; they'd never before passed 11%. The upshot for 2008: Blacks accounted for 23% of Obama's votes.

In 2004, 56% of eligible black citizens voted. David Bositis, a black-vote expert at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, estimated black turnout in 2008 was 65% to 70% — well above the previous record of 58% in 1968, the first election after the Voting Rights Act passed.

Bositis said Obama's opposition to the Iraq war and plans to revive the economy were part of his appeal to blacks, along with "the emotional component" of helping him make history.

Daniel Baxter, the elections director in the 83% black city of Detroit, got at that emotional component in a plea for patience to voters faced with long lines.

"What is five hours," he asked, "in comparison to waiting for 300 years for this moment to arrive?"

Contributing: Emily Bazar in Colorado, Marisol Bello in Michigan, Dennis Cauchon in Ohio, Larry Copeland in Florida, Peter Eisler in North Carolina, Rick Jervis in Missouri, Andrea Stone in Virginia