Election night journal

November 4, 2008

There isn't much suspense about who will win the presidential election--Barack Obama has a commanding lead by every measure. But how the vote breaks down--who turned out to vote, where the Democrats show strength, which Republican members of Congress get trounced--will tell an important story.

SocialistWorker.org columnists and writers will contribute to this journal throughout Election Night, providing up-to-the-minute analysis and commentary as the results roll in.

The right's referendums
2:30 a.m. CST

FOUR YEARS ago, the Republicans rode to election victory on the strength of what the media claimed were "values voters"--people who said they were attracted to conservative social issues. In crucial states, the Republicans used right-wing ballot measures to turn out their supporters--in particular, referendums against same-sex marriage.

In 2008, the picture is very different in many respects. But supporters of equal marriage rights have lost some bitter battles that they didn't have to.

The most-watched ballot measure was Proposition 8 in California, which sought to ban same-sex marriage only months after the California Supreme Court made equal marriage rights the law of the state, and state officials issued licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

As this entry was being written, Prop 8 was passing by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin, with around one-third of precincts still unreported. A number of the outstanding votes were in counties going strongly against Prop 8--particularly in Northern California, around the Bay Area--holding out hope that the referendum might still be defeated.

But even if it beats the odds and loses, the margin will be much too narrow for such a vile measure. Prop 8 explicitly takes away legal rights that have already been granted for a whole class of people. It's hard to think of many similar actions in the years between now and the Supreme Court's pre-Civil War Dred Scott decision that made escaped slaves subject to capture and return to the South.

Early on in the campaign, opinion polls showed strong opposition to Prop 8--a sign of the continuing shift on the issue of same-sex marriage. But with a month to go, right-wing forces led by the Mormon Church poured money into the campaign.

The voices with the most stature to challenge the right--leading Democrats who were on the record opposing Prop 8--stayed quiet, at least in part because the Democratic Party nationally wanted the issue of gay marriage to stay out of the spotlight, so the Religious Right wouldn't have another issue to mobilize around.

The right got its way on a same-sex marriage ban in Arizona and a particularly vile version in Florida that outlaws any legal union of gay couples, including civil unions and domestic partnerships.

But on abortion measures, the right wing lost ground. In South Dakota, anti-choice bigots put another referendum on the ballot. This one, like another in 2006 that was narrowly defeated, would have stopped nearly all abortions, but it contained narrow exceptions to the ban in cases of rape, incest and the life of the mother. Despite this, the measure went down to defeat by a healthy 55-to-45 percent margin.

In Colorado, an even more outrageous referendum would have defined a human egg as a "person" from the moment of fertilization--and in so doing outlawed not only abortion, but many common forms of birth control. It lost by a 3-to-1 margin.

Colorado voters also looked likely to defeat a ban on affirmative action, though a similar measure passed in Nebraska.

In Massachusetts, Question 1, which would have abolished the state income tax, was defeated by a huge margin--more than two-thirds opposed. The referendum was proposed by the libertarian right, but voters saw through this fraud. --Alan Maass

An immense crowd turned out to the Grant Park rally for Barack Obama
An immense crowd turned out to the Grant Park rally for Barack Obama

History is made
11:00 p.m. CST

AS SOON as it became clear that Obama was over the top, the tone of the media changed to one of reverence in recognition of the historic significance of the election of the first African American president.

And yet, coming out of the mouth of someone like MSNBC's Chris Matthews, it was a travesty. Matthews used the opportunity of Obama's moment of victory to brag about how great America is--having done, he claimed, what no other advanced country had in electing a Black head of state.

What hollow cant in the face of America's long and vicious history of racist barbarism--a country founded on slavery and made into a "great power" with the use of systematic racism.

But not even this hot air could overshadow the sense of exhilaration and tear-filled celebration among ordinary people, wherever they were gathered:

In Harlem in New York City, Brian Jones reports:

Several solid blocks of people celebrating. A giant mural depicts Malcolm X and Obama. Out of a sound system came the song "Ain't No Stopping Us Now," and the streets turned into a giant dance party. On the jumbo-tron, McCain is conceding, but the sound is breaking up. But no one wants to hear him anyway, so they put on Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours."

Outside the White House, a spontaneous crowd gathered to celebrate Obama's victory and jeer George Bush, who is reported to have called Obama to congratulate him. The contrast between Obama's sweeping win that has transformed the so-called "electoral map," and Bush's theft of the White House in 2000, on the basis of the disenfranchisement of African American voters in Florida, could not be more stark.

And in Grant Park in downtown Chicago, there was a vast sea of people, filling every visible corner of the huge lakefront area. The pictures really are worth a thousand words: dozens of young people with their fists raised in triumph, whole families dancing in the cramped space, tears flowing down the faces of older African American women, flags waving, singing and chanting.

As Lee Sustar described from downtown:

As Obama was headed in his motorcade to speak, people were still streaming toward Grant Park. The crowd is very racially mixed. All ages, though mostly young.

I just encountered a group of 10 Sri Lankan sisters and brothers, non-citizens who came down. "This is a moment to remember," they told me. "We're living through a moment of history. I want to be able to tell my children and grandchildren I was here to cheer on Barack Obama."

To them, Obama's victory represents something that they have seen only very rarely in the past generation. They know that the door is closing on an old era, and that a new one is beginning. --Alan Maass

A changing electorate
10:20 p.m. CST

WHEN CALIFORNIANS voted in this year's Democratic primary, about 30 percent of the ballots were cast by Latinos--a huge jump from just 7 percent in 2000. In the Iowa caucuses in January, turnout by young voters tripled over 2004. And when North Carolina opened its early voting process, Black voters lined up in greater numbers than ever before.

Those are signs that the U.S. electorate is changing to one that is more racially diverse, younger--and possibly more friendly to Democrats.

The under-30 set, a huge section of voters, has been trending Democratic, and analysts say that political allegiances which young people form in their earliest voting experiences typically stick throughout their lives.

As conservative writer David Frum earlier this year expressed his fears about the Republican Party's fading fortunes: "The decline has been steepest among young voters. If they eat right, exercise and wear seatbelts, today's 20-somethings will be voting against George W. Bush deep into the 2060s."

Latinos, a growing share of the electorate, have moved away from the Republican Party after some Republican leaders adopted a strict tone on illegal immigration. Bush won 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004. A recent survey showed McCain drawing 23 percent.

Fourteen years ago, California Republican Gov. Pete Wilson managed to win a comeback victory by riding the coattails of support for Proposition 187, an initiative that denied public services to undocumented workers. Wilson's and the GOP's victory was short-lived, as it forever drove Latino voters into the Democratic camp. Since then, California--once considered the key to the Republican "lock" on the White House--is now the biggest "blue" state in the country.

The right wing's anti-immigrant crusade now appears to be a factor in pushing states like Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida--all large Latino and immigrant populations--the way of California. If those trends hold true into the future, David Frum's worst nightmare really will come true. --Lance Selfa

Celebrating Obama's showing in Grant Park
Celebrating Obama's showing in Grant Park

The election in black and white
9:45 p.m. CST

WOULD THE presidential election be tipped to the Republicans because of deep currents of racism among white voters? That was the wisdom among plenty of media commentators--and the great fear of Obama's supporters before the election.

But the reality was different. It's not that race and racism wasn't a factor in the election. On the contrary, the smear campaign that the Republicans embarked on at their convention--with Sarah Palin and Rudolph Giuliani leading the sneers about "community organizers" and the cheers about "small-town America"--gave confidence to a core of right-wingers.

But it's also clear that McCain's choice of Palin and his descent into the gutter to attack Obama alienated at least as much support, including among the white workers who were supposed to be angry that Hillary Clinton, their supposed champion, was defeated, and would therefore oppose Obama in the general election.

In Pennsylvania, according to exit polls, Obama and McCain ran even among all white voters. In 2004, John Kerry lost by 9 percentage points among whites.

There's also the other side of the coin, which the media have ignored almost entirely--the intense excitement among African American voters in favor of Obama. The exit polls found that Obama was backed by 96 percent of Blacks. Likewise, by around 10 p.m. EST, Obama had moved into a slight lead in Virginia that appeared, from national exit polls, to be powered mainly by the votes of Blacks and Latinos.

In another development not anticipated by the media, Pennsylvania exit polls found that one in four voters said race was a factor in their vote, but a majority said it was a positive factor--that is, that race was one of the reasons they voted for Obama.

The claim that Obama was weak among white workers was always overdone. After all, in the Democratic primaries, he made his breakthrough in the Iowa caucuses, where just 2.3 percent of voters are Black. In Virginia and Wisconsin, two other key victories during the primaries, Obama scored solid victories among whites.

Early returns from Macomb County, Mich., the stereotypical home of "Reagan Democrats" in the Detroit suburbs, had Obama up 57 percent to 41 percent. And in Ohio, Obama won among whites making less than $50,000 annually. Take that, Joe the Plumber! --Alan Maass and Lance Selfa

Elizabeth Dole campaigning with George W. Bush
Elizabeth Dole campaigning with George W. Bush

The coming Republican minority
8:45 p.m. CST

IN THE Senate, the Democrats are putting Republicans through a world of hurt.

Among the earliest races to be called, in New Hampshire Jeanne Shaheen defeated incumbent John Sununu, who had beaten Shaheen six years before by pushing the issue of national security in the wake of 9/11. And in North Carolina, Democrat Kay Hagen beat incumbent Elizabeth Dole.

The Democrats were expected to double their majority with a pick-up of between 26 and 30 seats in the House, making Nancy Pelosi the House speaker with the largest majority in a generation.

As for the Senate, whether or not the Democrats reach the 60-seat margin needed to stop the Republicans' use of the filibuster, these defeats are signs of an ideological sea change in voter attitudes that has left the Republican Party out in the cold.

While voters are fed up with the war in Iraq and the cratering economy, the most fervent Republicans continue to fly the flag of war, free markets and social conservatism. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote the day before the election:

The Republican rump, the party that's left after the election, will be the party that attends Sarah Palin's rallies, where crowds chant "Vote McCain, not Hussein!" It will be the party of Saxby Chambliss, the senator from Georgia, who, observing large-scale early voting by African Americans, warns his supporters that "the other folks are voting." It will be the party that harbors menacing fantasies about Barack Obama's Marxist--or was that Islamic?--roots.

But beyond the Election Day losses, the bloodletting on the Republican side may just be getting underway. That's because as the party struggles to come up with an explanation for its electoral setbacks, the conservative wing is likely to beat out the moderates, a number of whom already defected to support Obama in the presidential election.

As a consequence, the explanation the Republicans settle on is almost certain to exacerbate their ideological isolation.

Consider, for example, the results of a poll conducted by Democratic operatives that asked Republican and Republican-minded independents, "Who is to blame for John McCain's possible defeat?"

Far from acknowledging the profound popular anger at the Bush administration, the poll shows that most Republicans think that McCain will lose because of a hostile mainstream media, economic events that they couldn't have been expected to control, and the stacks of money that the Democrats could call on--not because the Republican agenda is too conservative for the electorate.

Here is a summary of the poll's findings:

While a sizeable majority of voters say Republicans have lost in 2006 and 2008 because they have been "too conservative," a sizeable plurality of Republicans say, it is because they have "not been conservative enough."

Over three-quarters of Republicans say Palin was good choice, while a majority of the electorate says the opposite.

Two-thirds of Republicans say McCain has not been aggressive enough, but a majority of voters think they have been too aggressive.

Looking to the future, a large majority of Republicans say the party needs to "move more to the right and back to conservative principles," while an even larger majority of all voters say, it should move to the "center to win over moderate and independent voters."

Finally, almost 60 percent of Republicans say "if Barack Obama is elected, he will lead the country down the wrong path and Republicans should oppose his plans," while 70 percent of all voters say they "should give him the benefit of the doubt and help him achieve his plans."

In other words, every remedy that most Republicans figure will win them future electoral glory will actually accomplish the opposite--further alienating them from voters they lost to Obama today. --Eric Ruder

Moving to the center?
8:25 p.m. CST

THE VOTING wasn't even over yet before the voices of "bipartisanship" and "centrism" were weighing in about what Barack Obama "needed to do" as president.

Despite that fact that the U.S. seemed on the verge of electing its first Black president and soundly rejecting George Bush and the Republican agenda, the "wise men and women" of the Washington and media establishments cautioned that Obama and the Democrats needed to tread lightly.

William Galston, of the right-wing Democratic Leadership Council and a former Bill Clinton adviser, wrote in the New Republic:

The not-so-good news is that expectations are sky-high and that some of his supporters will press him to throw caution to the wind and emulate FDR's first 100 days, or LBJ's feverish legislative pace in 1965 and 1966. This is a temptation Obama would do well to resist. Despite today's crisis environment, there are economic and political limits to government activism that the president-elect will ignore at his peril...

The more ambitious the agenda, the more likely it is to fall victim to entrenched political realities, and failing to strike a workable balance between ambition and political feasibility would invite a repetition of the 1994 mid-term disaster that left Bill Clinton on the defensive for the remainder of his presidency.

At least one Obama supporter and campaign surrogate, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, told Fox News that Obama's first order of business would be to reach out to McCain supporters--you know, the people who have been calling Obama a terrorist and socialist.

If nothing else, this shows how entrenched the conventional wisdom is. While Obama attracted support on the strength of his message for "change," these Washington pundits and politicians will be happy if nothing changes.

A few points are in order.

First, no matter how much social change takes place in the U.S., it always seems like there is no shortage of Washington-based pundits who are happy to declare the U.S. a "center-right" country. Of course, many of these were the same people who assured us after the 2004 election that the Republicans were on their way to building a permanent majority.

Second, the idea that Obama must move to the "center" is premised on the idea that he was on the "left" to begin with. That's not really the case, as anyone who has paid close attention to his consistent stands throughout his campaign knows.

Third, the Obama administration will be faced with an economic crisis that is going to limit its agenda, even if that agenda were more far-reaching than it is in reality.

If Obama really wants to alienate his rank-and-file support, he should follow Galston's advice and move to the right. Then, he would be on his way to following in Clinton's footsteps. Far from moving to the "left" in his early administration, Bill Clinton followed the advice of Galston and his cohorts. He pressed for NAFTA and abandoned his health care reform plan--alienating his working class supporters and opening the door to the 1994 "Republican revolution." --Lance Selfa

The big picture
7:35 p.m. CST

AS THE news starts rolling in, and the media parse the details, it will be easy to lose sight of the big picture that shaped this election. But really, that picture will be obvious in every result.

The Democrats are riding a wave of discontent with eight years of George Bush and the right-wing agenda. Thus, in Pennsylvania--where NBC News forecast an Obama victory as soon as the polls closed, indicating that their exit poll survey had the Democrat winning by a wide margin--fully 90 percent of voters described the economy as "not good."

This is despite the fact that the McCain campaign focused a lot of its resources on the state, and the state party attempted to smear Obama with an ad that featured his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In fact, the Republicans' slanders appear to backfired with the so-called "swing voters" prized by both campaigns.

The tide was already shifting with the 2006 congressional election that kicked the Republicans out of control of both houses of Congress. The conservative columnist David Brooks wrote before that vote: "It's clear that this election will mark the end of conservative dominance. This election is a period, not a comma in political history." Before this election, Brooks was even more strident that the vote would mark "the end of an economic era, a political era and a generational era all at once."

Opinion polls show a stunning level of discontent. Fewer than one in 10 Americans think the country's on the right track, the lowest level in the three decades that Gallup has asked the question. With the economy plunging deeper into a recession, consumer confidence is at a 41-year low. Bush's approval ratings have been in Richard Nixon territory for several years, and the public's opinion of Congress is even lower.

"This is the worst crisis of confidence in our institutions since 1932," pollster John Zogby told a reporter. "The numbers are worse than Watergate, worse than the malaise period of the late 1970s."

This is why the 2008 election was always Barack Obama's to lose. But the flip side of this is that the desire for change will be urgent from the moment that, as seems likely, Obama takes office. There will more than likely be a honeymoon period in which supporters say that Obama needs to be given a chance. But it won't be a complacent honeymoon if it does take place.

Obama and the Democrats certainly recognize this. They were already trying to lower expectations for an Obama administration in a variety of ways. But the issues that concern working people are urgent and getting more so. As Sherry Wolf described in a visit to a polling place near her Chicago home:

At Chicago's Logan Square YMCA, where SocialistWorker.org wrote a story about the food pantry a couple of months ago, the line for free groceries ran around the block again this morning. There was a steady trickle heading into the polling place at the same Y, but no line.

I talked to a couple of the mothers with their young children in tow on the food pantry line. Juanita was thrilled as a first-time voter for Obama and "scared to death of a McCain victory." Maria, however, said she wasn't going to vote. "I know it's a big blow to racism to have a Black man in office, but his plans just don't sound too good to me. He talks pretty, but I'm really not impressed by talk."

--Alan Maass

Will Virginia be the new Florida?
5:05 p.m. CST

THERE ARE reports of long lines and problems at polling places in many states, but the worst of it seems to be taking place in Virginia, a crucial state to Barack Obama's hopes for winning the White House.

As the Nation's Andrew Gumbel reported:

In the crush of the first few hours of Election Day, the crucial swing state of Virginia is emerging as the country's number-one voting trouble spot. As of 10:30 am ET, more than two dozen polling places across the state were reported to be close to a standstill because of machine failures, lack of back-up paper ballots and other problems. Dozens of other locations were experiencing abnormal delays and long lines, raising serious questions about the ability of Virginia voters to exercise their democratic rights before the scheduled close of voting at 7 p.m.

Many of the problems were concentrated in the D.C. suburbs in the northern part of the state; in Richmond, the state capital; and in the Hampton Roads area around Norfolk and Virginia Beach. All three are seen as strongholds for the Barack Obama campaign, where turnout could be crucial in putting the state in the Democratic Party column.

Gumbel points out that unlike Florida in 2000, the Democrats control the governor's mansion in Virginia--Obama backer Gov. Tim Kaine says he welcomes the surge in turnout.

State officials and election observers say the biggest problem is that the state is woefully under-prepared for a turnout that will likely shatter all previous records. For one thing, unlike North Carolina and Georgia, where Obama has the backing of large numbers of first-time voters, Virginia doesn't have early voting--and it's absentee voting process is tortured.

At the same time, however, some civil rights organizations are charging that Republican officials may be making matters worse. One group said that Virginia poll workers may have illegally turned away thousands of voters, and that county election officials shifted a polling place serving Virginia Tech University students to a church six miles away, according to a newspaper report. --Alan Maass

A line outside a polling place in New York City where the wait to vote was more than two hours
A line outside a polling place in New York City where the wait to vote was more than two hours (Hadas Thier | SW)

No one's seen a turnout like this since '08...1908
3:45 p.m. CST

WE WON'T get started with this journal in earnest for several hours when the results start coming in. But already by midday, it's clear that predictions of a huge turnout for Election 2008 were right.

In some of the hotly contested battleground states, lines outside polling places stretched for blocks, with waits lasting several hours.

At Lashawne Jenkins' polling place in Detroit, the Bethel African Methodist Church, the line was 100 deep before the polls even opened. "We're voting in a historic time," Jenkins told a Bloomberg News reporter. The wait was even longer at Agudas Achim synagogue in Alexandria, Va., where there were 400 people in line when voting began at 6 a.m.

And this is after huge numbers of people voted early in the 31 states that permit it. "In three swing states--North Carolina, New Mexico and Colorado--the number of voters who have already cast their ballots has reached more than 70 percent of the [total] number who voted there in 2004," the Los Angeles Times reported.

ABC News commentator George Stephanopoulos estimated that "more than 130 million people are likely to vote this year. That is a huge record...If it hits 65 percent, it would be stunning. You have to go back to 1908 to find numbers like that."

This is an obvious indication of the intense interest in this election, which seems certain to mark a definitive end to an era of conservative dominance, not just under George Bush, but dating back more than a quarter century to the Reagan presidency.

One result is that the desire to participate is straining the capabilities of the U.S. election system, which is left to an underfunded structure of county-level election authorities. Even where there isn't an intent to suppress voter turnout--and there were many allegations of fraud, centered as always in working-class and especially minority neighborhoods where the Democratic vote is strongest--the system is biased against participation by ordinary people.

The conventional wisdom is that long waits will dissuade young and first-time voters from casting a ballot. But that might not play out this time--because of the intense interest built up around Barack Obama's campaign.

In fact, suggested Time's Mark Halperin, "McCain's less motivated backers, who are more likely to see their cause as hopeless," might be the ones to give up and go home.

One way that enthusiasm for the Obama campaign has played out is in an intensive get-out-the-vote operation, funded by the immense sums Obama raised and staffed by an army of volunteers. At the Halloween party I was at in Chicago last Friday night, several people were planning on leaving early, so they could get up the next morning for a trip to Indiana or Iowa to knock on doors.

The scope of Obama's "field operation," to use the political lingo, is as vast and unprecedented as his fundraising. For example, Obama's Pennsylvania campaign estimated it knocked on 1.8 million doors during the 48 hours.

For the huge numbers of people who took part, the experience of the Obama campaign will have been unlike any election activity in at least a generation. As far as Obama and the Democrats are concerned, this participation pretty much comes to an end on November 5. But a lot of people politicized by this election--and by the immense political and social questions being raised today--will be ready to turn their attention to a different kind of political activity. --Alan Maass

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