In Congress, a Democratic wave

WASHINGTON -- America's election of an African American as president wasn't the only breakthrough Tuesday night.

By defeating John McCain in such reliably Republican states as Colorado and Virginia — capital of the Confederacy and a state that hasn't backed a Democrat for president in four decades — Barack Obama reshaped the electoral map that has defined American politics for a generation.

Surveys of voters as they left polling places nationwide also showed shifts in allegiances among young people, Hispanics, upscale voters and others that could reverberate through future elections.

Obama's victory and Democratic gains in the House and Senate led Democrats to their strongest governing position since the post-Watergate election in 1976. Among the Republicans who lost re-election bids were North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole and New Hampshire Sen. John Sununu, members of two of the GOP's signature families.

Some analysts see a turning point in American politics like what occurred in 1980, when Republican Ronald Reagan's victory over President Carter set the nation on a more conservative course for the past quarter-century.

The analysts caution, however, that the ability of a new president and his party to deliver on campaign promises to calm the roiling economy, withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and expand health care coverage would determine whether the 2008 election turns out to be a long-term realignment for Democrats or a one-time repudiation of an unpopular Republican president at a time many Americans are unnerved by economic turmoil.

Nearly two-thirds of those polled after they cast their ballots called the economy the most important issue facing the country — the most single-minded electorate in two decades of exit polling.

"President Bush has given us a Hoover moment," says Democratic strategist Al From, likening the situation to Franklin Roosevelt's victory over Herbert Hoover in 1932 that ushered in a 20-year hold on the White House for Democrats.

"A lot of people have given Democrats a chance to prove we can govern," From says, "and the test for Obama is whether he can perform in office."

Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, one of Bush's top advisers in his presidential campaigns, calls this "a seminal election that people will look back at as a real turning point in American politics."

Election Day followed a campaign laced with breakthroughs: It was the longest presidential campaign ever — Tom Vilsack, then governor of Iowa, opened the season by launching his bid for the Democratic nomination almost two years ago — and the most wide open since 1928.

It was the most expensive election in U.S. history — $2.4 billion was raised and spent on the presidential campaign — and a campaign that tapped emerging technology, from online fundraising to Twitter alerts.

Most significantly, it ended by sending the first African American in history to the White House. Obama's election as president, 143 years after the United States abolished slavery, fueled a jump in black participation and stood as a transformational moment in the nation's racial history.

Obama not only won 95% of black voters but also 43% of whites — a bit better than John Kerry, a white Democrat, did among white voters in the 2004 presidential election. In surveys at polling places, nine of 10 voters said the race of the candidates wasn't important in their decision of whom to support.

Among those who did consider race, Obama benefited. He won a majority of those who said it was an important factor.

Obama's election may be raising hopes of better race relations ahead. Nearly half of Americans predicted race relations in the United States would get better over the next few years. Just 15% said they would get worse.

It's the economy

One issue dominated this election: the economy.

More voters identified the economy as the country's most pressing problem than every other issue combined.

That's a contrast to 2004, when "moral values" ranked first and concern was divided about evenly among that issue and the economy, terrorism and the Iraq war. Two years ago, in the 2006 congressional elections that produced big Democratic gains, Iraq was the nation's No. 1 concern.

No more.

Now, just 10% called the war the most important issue. Americans were more likely to say they were very worried about not being able to afford health care than about the possibility of another major terrorist attack in the United States.

More than nine in 10 rated the economy as "not so good" or poor, and half said they were very worried about the economy's direction over the next year.

The downturn is hitting home: Nearly half of those surveyed said they were very worried that the current economic crisis would harm their own family's finances over the next year.

Those voters supported Obama by nearly 2 to 1. Indeed, the more worried voters were about their personal finances, the more likely they were to vote for Obama. Among the one in five voters who weren't worried about their personal finances, McCain prevailed by 2 to 1.

The sharpest divide in the electorate was this: Those who thought the economy was going well and the country was headed in the right direction gave McCain his strongest support.

The group of those who said the economy was bad and the country had gotten "seriously off track" was much larger, however. They overwhelmingly supported Obama.

The financial meltdown that broke into public view in mid-September was "a big turning point" in the election, says Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, an adviser to President Clinton's campaigns.

The downward spiral for major U.S. financial institutions focused voters' attention on the issue and forced Obama to sharpen his economic message, Greenberg says.

Meanwhile, McCain's response — first saying the nation's economic fundamentals were sound and then suspending his campaign to deal with the crisis — raised questions among some about his steadiness and judgment.

The economic maelstrom also reinforced a broad appetite for change. Among those who said the most important quality they wanted in a candidate was one who would bring about "needed change," nine of 10 backed Obama.

A '21st-century coalition'

"We are entering a new political era because the changes that are going on in the country are bigger than just politics," says Simon Rosenberg, president of an advocacy group called the New Democratic Network.

"There's the emergence of a new governing agenda that's very 21st-century in nature, very different from the challenges we faced in the 20th century. There's a new technology and media environment, and we're going through the most profound demographic changes in American history."

Obama was winning the election with "a very 21st-century coalition," Rosenberg says.

Among key voter groups, Obama:

•Swamped McCain by more than 2 to 1 among Americans under 30, members of the huge Millennial generation that are moving into voting age. Four years ago, John Kerry edged George Bush among young people by just 9 percentage points.

Young voters gave Obama the most lopsided advantage for a candidate among any age group since that data became available in the 1976 exit polls.

•Reversed gains Bush had made among Hispanic voters, despite McCain's Southwest roots and work on immigration reform. Obama was carrying Hispanics by more than 2 to 1. Four years ago, Bush won support from 44% of Latinos, the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group.

•Won a majority of women with children, another Bush group four years ago, and widened the Democratic advantage among working women.

•Made inroads among upscale voters, traditionally a Republican stronghold.

Obama and McCain split college graduates, a group that had supported Bush four years ago. And Obama led McCain by 6 percentage points among those with a family income of more than $200,000. Four years ago, Bush won those voters by nearly 2 to 1.

McCain didn't improve the Republicans' standing with any major demographic group, the surveys showed.

He maintained the GOP's lead among seniors, those 65 and older, but lost ground among the white evangelical Christians whose support was critical for Bush four years ago.

The outgoing president cast a pall on McCain and the GOP.

Seven in 10 said they disapproved of the job Bush is doing, and 70% of them supported Obama. Among those who said McCain would "continue George W. Bush's policies," nine of 10 backed the Democratic ticket.

Obama also had the advantage on voter enthusiasm.

Nearly six in 10 of his voters said they were "excited" about Obama's possible election — twice the number of McCain supporters who said that of the Republican.

Half of the voters on each side said they were "scared" about the prospect of what the other candidate would do if he won.

Obama won a clear majority of the popular vote — the strongest showing for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson's landslide in 1964. He was only the third Democrat to win more than 50% of the vote since World War II.

And he captured more than 330 electoral votes, significantly more than Bush won during either of his two White House victories.

And battleground states?

The electoral map that has remained relatively stable through a string of contests was shaken up as Obama showed strength in some states and regions that have been reliably Republican.

He claimed Ohio, the quintessential battleground that Bush won in 2000 and 2004, and held on to Pennsylvania, the Democratic state from 2004 to which McCain had devoted the most time and attention.

That gave Democrats a near-sweep in the Rust Belt states that have long been the nation's central political battleground.

Among other Bush states from 2004, Obama also won New Mexico, Colorado and Iowa.

In the national surveys, voters in the East backed Obama by overwhelming margins, and those in the West and Midwest also supported the Democratic ticket by double digits.

Only in the South did Republicans clearly dominate.

"We've become a regional party," says Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee who is retiring from Congress this year.

"We're going to have to retool ourselves."

Even so, Davis says the 2008 outcome "represents a repudiation of the Bush administration, and that's all it represents."

If Obama and congressional Democrats don't deliver on issues, "the voters will turn with a vengeance on them. There's nothing automatic here. Is it transformational? Who knows?"

Larry Bartels, director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at Princeton, says a pessimistic electorate was giving Obama a chance to do something to address the country's economic problems, though not a mandate to follow some particular policy.

"People are really voting on the basis of their sense of how the country is right now rather than any particular ideological calculation about the competing policies of the two candidates," Bartels says.

As president, Obama "will have a chance to show that he can make things better, and people will evaluate him about whether things get better or not."