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On Obama's night, an election to remember

His victory means many things to many people. Here's how a cluster of Americans – black and white, liberal and conservative – experienced the historic 2008 election.

By Amanda Paulson, Patrik Jonsson, and Mark Guarino / November 5, 2008

Christian Branch, 18, voted for the first time Nov. 4. She and her mother, April, live on Chicago's South Side, where they watched election returns with friends Tuesday night.

Jasmine Scott/Special to The Christian Science Monitor


Chicago – When early polls closed at 7 p.m. Eastern time, April Branch and her daughter, Christian, sat huddled around the TV in their home on Chicago’s South Side. Ms. Branch had taken the day off work to take her 18-year-old daughter to vote for the first time, and the two – wearing matching Obama T-shirts – wondered if this would be the year they’d see an African-American elected president of the United States.

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It was too early, they thought, to be optimistic. “We’re a little cynical after 2000,” says April.

Seven hundred miles away in Dallas, Ga., Rocky Swann had finished his stakeout on Ridge Road, where he'd held a McCain sign to influence passing voters, and was about to head to the Paulding County Republican headquarters, where about 20 people were eating tiny hot dogs wrapped in bacon and watching the returns come in.

“This is an election for the soul of America, as I see it,” says Mr. Swann, a Vietnam War veteran turned high school history teacher.

And in Chicago’s Grant Park, where some 70,000 ticketholders were lining up to enter the biggest Election Night party in America, and hundreds of thousands more gathered nearby, Ben Oklan was busy volunteering for the Obama campaign, trying to ensure that the event would go smoothly.

“I’ve been counting down until 6 o’clock [7 p.m. Eastern time] since noon today,” says the San Francisco resident, who was laid off from his job as a tax attorney one week ago. “Now that it’s finally 6, I wish it was 7 p.m. When 7 rolls around, I’ll want it to be 8.”

As the huge screen above Grant Park flashed the first election results, Mr. Oklan jumped up and down excitedly. “Come on Georgia, Indiana!” This is great!”

Across the country, Americans were glued to their televisions and Blackberries Tuesday night, watching the returns come in at home, at parties with friends, or out in streets and churches and community centers. They celebrated or mourned, depending on their political convictions, as state after state was called. Some Obama supporters continued to bite their nails, fearing to hope despite the positive polls and media stories, and some McCain supporters clung to the possibility that the polls were wrong and that other Americans would see the choice on Tuesday in the same stark terms they did.

A few individuals in these three locales in America provide one small window into the jubilation – or disappointment – that millions of fellow citizens felt as they watched the 2008 election finally come to its historic end.

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Early Tuesday evening, those gathered at the Republican headquarters in Paulding County, known to many in the state as Republicanville, USA, saw their first – and only – lead of the night. It's just 7:04, and their man, John McCain, had captured 13 electoral votes to Barack Obama’s three. “We’re winning!” says Paulette Braddock, who helped cook the food for the post-election party.