Obama's turnout historical in numbers, diversity

The estimated 136 million Americans who voted are part of a radical transformation of American politics – and not just in terms of ideology and party identification.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
People lined up to vote at a polling station on election day in Washington.

The turn-out was record high. The voters: a rich palate of American diversity – women, blacks, Hispanics, whites – young people and old.

They made history – redrawing the nation’s electoral map, turning red states blue, and confounding the cynics as they elected the nation’s first African-American President.

An estimated 136 million Americans – as many as 66 percent, the most since 1908 – pulled a lever, touched a screen, or filled in ballot. They are part of a radical transformation of American politics – not just in terms of ideology and party identification. It goes much further than that.

President-elect Barack Obama, harnessing the lightening speed of digital technology, tapped a new generation of young people, inspiring them to work, knock on doors, make phone calls, convince their parents, friends, neighbors, and grandparents that there was something in America still worth fighting for.

Early analyses of the electorate show the percentage of the voting population that was young – 18 to 24 – increased only a percentage or two from past elections to 18 percent. But in terms of actual numbers who turned up at the polls, their percentage increase is expected to far outpace that of other demographic groups. And their support for the Illinois senator is considered pivotal. The “under 30’s” voted for Obama 66 percent to 32 percent for his rival John McCain.

“That could well make them the deciding factor in this election,” says Ian Rowe, MTV's vice president of strategic partnerships. “We’re entering a new era – not only in terms of voting, we’re entering a new millennial presidency – it’s not only that young people turned out in big numbers, but also the way in which they were engaged in the process. There’s a whole new level of transparency and access that Obama as president will utilize to much more engage young people.”

That was evident in the way Obama reacted to his win. He chose first to send an email to supporters thanking them, before heading out to speak in the glare of television klieg lights to the throngs of tens of thousands of cheering - some tearing-up - supporters at Grant Park on Tuesday night.

“I want to be very clear about one thing...” he wrote, in an understated way. “All of this happened because of you. Thank you, Barack.”

Across the board, the economy was the main thing on voters’ minds, whether they were young, African-American or Hispanic, or suburban whites. Six in ten voters said the pocket book issues, including health care, were top on their agendas. That helped Obama cement victory with key independent voters, which he won by a comfortable margin, according to exit polls. It also helped him win suburban voters, who for the last decade had been trending Republican. The majority of women also pulled the lever for the Illinois senator, as did 96 percent of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanic voters.

John McCain won among older votes and whites overall, who make up about three-quarters of the electorate. But he only managed to eke out a majority there, not even close to the 17 point margin George W. Bush had in 2004 against Senator John Kerry. McCain also lost the “new voter” category, only one in five of whom identified themselves as Republicans.

About two-thirds of the new voters were under 30, twenty percent were black and another twenty percent were Hispanic. They went overwhelming for Obama. That also helped the Democrats win comfortable margins in the Congress, although they appear to have fallen short of winning the 60 votes needed in the Senate to prevent Republican filibusters.

Analysts contend that gives the Democrats the opportunity to usher in a new era, but they stress it’s only an opportunity.

Democrats certainly have an opportunity for long-term change because they’ve mobilized young voters, they’ve won the Latino vote, which will grow over time, and they’re doing well in the suburbs where Republicans used to beat them,” says Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “But in the long run, their success depends on their performance.”

The broad base that supported Obama has very high expectations, especially among the young.

Pollster John Zogby calls them the “globals,” the latest demographic group that’s taken the political reigns from the baby boomers and the Gen-Xers.

“Obama is the first global [president,] he’s one of them. He looks like their friends, he looks like their future – they have a planetary sensibility that they see in him and, wow, did they turn out to vote,” says Mr. Zogby. “These are Obama’s people…but the question now is: Are they the Democrats' people? They’re clearly not the Republicans' people, but the question is can the Democrats hold on to them? There are going to be a lot of high expectations.”

Indeed, Obama used his speech last night to begin playing down those expectations, repeatedly talking about the challenges ahead. And as he made clear in his email to supporters that he does not intend to meet those challenges alone, isolated with advisors in the White House.

“We have a lot of work to do to get our country back on track,” he wrote. “And I'll be in touch soon about what comes next.”

That could determine whether Obama’s historic victory also ushers in a new era the way Franklin Roosevelt did with the New Deal almost 80 years ago.

“Obama and the Democrats will now get a chance to govern and we’ll see how well they govern, and that’s going to determine it,” says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia.

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