The United States presidential election of 2008 was held on Tuesday, November 4, 2008. It was the 56th consecutive quadrennial United States presidential election. Incumbent Republican President George W. Bush's policies and actions and the American public's desire for change were key issues throughout the campaign, and during the general election campaign, both major party candidates ran on a platform of change and reform in Washington. Domestic policy and the economy eventually emerged as the main themes in the last few months of the election campaign, particularly after the onset of the 2008 economic crisis.

Democrat Barack Obama, the then junior United States Senator from Illinois, defeated Republican John McCain, the senior United States Senator from Arizona. Nine states changed allegiance from the 2004 election. Each had voted for the Republican nominee in 2004 and contributed to Obama's sizable Electoral College victory. The selected electors from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia voted for President and Vice President of the United States on December 15, 2008. Those votes were tallied before a joint session of Congress on January 8, 2009, and Obama received 365 electoral votes, and McCain 173.

There were several unique aspects about the 2008 election. This election was the first time in U.S. history that an African American was elected President,[1] and the first time a Roman Catholic was elected Vice President.[2] It was also the first time two sitting senators ran against each other. It was the first election in 56 years that neither an incumbent president (Bush was barred from seeking a third term by the Twenty-second Amendment) nor a vice president ran. Also, voter turnout for the 2008 election was the highest in at least 40 years.


In 2004, President George W. Bush narrowly[3][4][5] won reelection defeating the Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. After Republican pickups in the House and Senate in the 2004 elections, Republicans held their control of both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government.

Bush's approval ratings had been slowly declining from their high point of almost 90% after 9/11,Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag.

By September 2006, Bush's approval ratings were below 40%,[6] and the Democratic party appeared to have a clear advantage in the upcoming Congressional elections. Additionally, Democrats pulled out several surprise victories in Congress and gained the majority in both houses. Bush's approval ratings continued to drop steadily throughout the rest of his term.


Democratic nominationEdit

Main article: Barack Obama presidential campaign, 2008

Before the primariesEdit

"Front-runner" status is dependent on the news agency reporting, and by October 2007, the consensus listed about three candidates as leading the pack after several debate performances. For example, CNN listed Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama as the Democratic front runners. The Washington Post listed Clinton, Edwards and Obama as the front-runners, "leading in polls and fundraising and well ahead of the other major candidates".[7] Clinton led in nearly all nationwide opinion polling until January.

Two candidates, Clinton and Obama, raised over $20 million in the first three months of 2007. Edwards raised over $12 million and Richardson raised over $6 million.[8] Hillary Clinton set the Democratic record for largest single day fund raising in a primary on June 30, 2007[9] while Barack Obama set the record for monthly fundraising during a primary with $55 million in February of 2008.[10]

Early primaries/caucusesEdit

At the start of the year, support for Barack Obama began rising in the polls, passing Clinton for first place in Iowa; Obama ended up winning the caucus, with John Edwards coming in second and Clinton a close third. Iowa is viewed as the state that jump-started Obama's campaign and set him on track to win the nomination and the presidency.

Obama was the new front-runner in New Hampshire, and the Clinton campaign was struggling after a bad loss in Iowa and no real strategy in place for after the early primaries and caucuses. However, in a turning point for her campaign, Clinton's voice wavered with emotion in a public interview broadcast live on TV.[11] By the end of that day, Clinton won the primary by 2% of the vote, contrary to the predictions of pollsters who had her as much as twelve points behind on the day of the primary itself.

Super TuesdayEdit

On February 3 on the UCLA campus, celebrities Oprah Winfrey, Caroline Kennedy and Stevie Wonder, among others, made appearances to show support for Barack Obama in a rally led by Michelle Obama.[12] Obama trailed in the California polling by an average of 6.0%; he ended up losing the state by 8.3%.[13] Some analysts cited a large Latino turnout that voted for Clinton as the deciding factor.[14] Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver, endorsed Obama.[15]


Barack Obama campaigns in Akron, Ohio on February 23, 2008

Super Tuesday occurred on February 5, 2008, during which the largest-ever number of simultaneous state primary elections was held.[16] Super Tuesday ended leaving the Democrats in a virtual tie, with Obama amounting 847 delegates to Clinton's 834 from the 23 states that held Democratic primaries.[17]

Louisiana, Washington, Nebraska, Hawaii, Wisconsin, U.S. Virgin Islands, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia primaries and the Maine caucus all took place after Super Tuesday in February. Obama won all of them, giving him ten consecutive victories after Super Tuesday. [18][19]

Ohio and TexasEdit

On March 4, Hillary Clinton carried Ohio and Rhode Island in the Democratic primaries; some considered these wins, especially Ohio, a surprise upset,[20] although she led in the polling averages in both states.[13][21] She also carried the primary in Texas, but Obama won the Texas caucuses held the same day and netted more delegates from the state than Clinton.[22]

Only one state held a primary in April. This was Pennsylvania, on April 22. Hillary Clinton won the primary by 9.2%, with approximately 54.6% of the vote.

Indiana and North CarolinaEdit

On May 6, North Carolina and Indiana held their Democratic presidential primaries. Clinton and Obama campaigned aggressively in both states before the voting took place; both candidates acknowledged the importance of these primaries and said they were turning point states.[23] Polling had shown Obama a few points ahead in North Carolina and Clinton similarly leading in Indiana.[24][25] However, in the actual results, Obama outperformed the polls by several points in both states, winning by a significant margin in North Carolina and losing by only 1.4% in Indiana. After these primaries, it became very improbable, if not virtually impossible, for Clinton to win the nomination; Indiana had barely kept her campaign alive for the next month.[26] Although she did manage to win the majority of the remaining primaries and delegates, it was not enough to overcome Obama's substantial delegate lead.

Florida and MichiganEdit

During late 2007, both parties adopted rules against states' moving their primaries to an earlier date in the year. For the Republicans, the penalty for this violation was supposed to be the loss of half the state party's delegates to the convention; however, the Democratic penalty was the complete exclusion from the national convention of delegates from states that broke these rules. The Democratic Party allowed only four states to hold elections before February 5, 2008. Initially, the Democratic leadership said it would strip all delegates from Florida and Michigan, which had moved their primaries into January. In addition, all major Democratic candidates agreed officially not to campaign in Florida or Michigan, and Edwards and Obama removed their names from the Michigan ballot. Clinton won a majority of delegates from both states (though 40% voted uncommitted in Michigan) and subsequently led a fight to seat all the Florida and Michigan delegates.[27]

Political columnist Christopher Weber noted that while her action was self-serving, it was also pragmatic to forestall Florida or Michigan voters becoming so disaffected they did not vote for Democrats in the general election.[28] There was some speculation that the fight over the delegates could last until the convention in August. On May 31, 2008, the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the Democratic Party reached a compromise on the Florida and Michigan delegate situation. The committee decided to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida at the convention in August, but to only award each a half-vote.[29]

Clinching the nominationEdit

Technically the nomination process for major political parties continues through June of election year. In previous cycles the candidates were effectively chosen by the end of the March primaries. However, Barack Obama did not win enough delegates to secure the nomination until June 3, after a 17-month-long campaign against Hillary Clinton. Obama had a wide lead in states won, but because of Democratic state delegate contests being decided by a form of proportional representation and close popular vote numbers between Clinton and Obama, the contest for the nomination continued into June 2008.[30] By May, Clinton had claimed a lead in the popular vote, but the Associated Press found her numbers accurate only in one very close scenario.[31]

In June, after the last of the primaries had taken place, Obama, with the help of multiple super delegate endorsements, had finally gotten enough delegates to secure the Democratic nomination for President,[32] becoming the first African American to win the nomination of a major political party in the United States.[33] However, Clinton refused to concede the race for several days, although she did signal that her presidential campaign was ending in a post-primary speech on June 3 in her home state.[34] She finally conceded the nomination to Obama on June 7 and pledged her full support to the presumptive nominee, vowing to do everything she could to help him get elected.[35]

Republican nominationEdit

Main article: John McCain presidential campaign, 2008

Not only was 2008 the first election since 1952 that neither the incumbent president nor the incumbent vice president was a candidate in the general election, but it was also the first time since the 1928 election that neither sought his party's nomination for president. Since term limits absolutely prevented Bush from seeking the nomination and being a candidate, the unique aspect was vice-president Cheney's decision not to seek the Republican nomination.[36][37] This left the Republican field just as open to a wide field of new candidates as the Democratic field was.

Before the primariesEdit

In the third quarter of 2007, the top four GOP (Republican) fund raisers were Romney, Giuliani, Thompson, and Ron Paul.[38] Paul set the GOP record for the largest online single day fund raising on November 5, 2007.[39] MSNBC's Chuck Todd christened Giuliani and John McCain the front runners after the second Republican presidential debate in early 2007.[40]

Early primaries/caucusesEdit

Huckabee, after winning in Iowa, had little money and hoped for a third-place finish in New Hampshire. John McCain eventually displaced Rudy Giuliani and Romney as the front-runner in New Hampshire. McCain staged a turnaround victory, having been written off by the pundits and polling in single digits less than a month before the race.[41]

With the Republicans' stripping Michigan and Florida of half their delegates, the race for the nomination was based there. McCain meanwhile managed a small victory in South Carolina, setting him up for a larger and more important victory in Florida soon afterward.

Super TuesdayEdit

In February, before Super Tuesday, the California primary took place after John McCain was endorsed by Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudy Giuliani (who had dropped out of the race following the Florida primary). This gave him a significant boost in the state.[42]

A few days later, Mitt Romney suspended his presidential campaign and endorsed McCain, leaving Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul as the only major challengers of McCain in the remaining Republican primaries.[43] Louisiana, Washington, Kansas, Wisconsin, and Washington held primaries in February after Super Tuesday, with McCain picking up wins in these states.[19] The Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico closed February for the Republicans.

After Super Tuesday, John McCain had become the clear front runner, but by the end of February he still hadn't acquired enough delegates to secure the nomination. In March, John McCain clinched the Republican nomination after sweeping all four primaries, Texas, Ohio, Vermont, and Rhode Island, putting him over the top of the 1,191 delegates required to win the GOP nomination.[21] Mike Huckabee then conceded the race to McCain, leaving Ron Paul, who had just 16 delegates, as his only remaining active opponent.[44]

Party conventionsEdit

General election campaignEdit

Campaign IssuesEdit


The unpopular war in Iraq was a key issue during the campaign before the economic crisis. John McCain had supported the war while Barack Obama had opposed it from the outset because it had been proven that Iraq was not responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks which the Bush Administration had claimed was absolute fact for the last few years. McCain's statement that the United States could be in Iraq for as much as the next 50 to 100 years would prove costly as Obama used the statement against him as part of his strategy to tie him to the unpopular President Bush.

John McCain's support for the successful troop 'surge' employed by General David Petraeus, which was one of several factors credited with improving the security situation in Iraq, may have boosted McCain's stance on the issue in voters' minds. McCain (who supported the invasion) argued that his support for the successful surge showed his superior judgment, whereas Obama (who opposed the surge) argued that his opposition to the invasion that preceded the surge showed his. However, Obama was quick to remind voters that there would have been no need for a "surge" had there been no war at all, which he then used to question McCain's judgment as well.

Bush's unpopularityEdit

Entering 2008, George W. Bush was very unpopular with polls consistently showing his percent support from the American public in the twenties and thirties.[45][46] In March 2008, McCain was endorsed by Bush at the White House,[47] but did not make a single appearance on McCain's behalf during the campaign. Although he supported the war in Iraq, McCain made an effort to show that he had disagreed with Bush on many other key issues such as climate change. During the entire general election campaign, Obama pointed out in ads and at numerous campaign rallies that McCain had claimed in an interview that he voted with Bush 90% of the time, and this was supported by the congressional voting records for the years Bush was in office.[48]

Change vs. experienceEdit

Before even the first Democratic primaries, the dichotomy of change versus experience had already become a common theme in the presidential campaign, with Senator Hillary Clinton positioning herself as the candidate with experience and Obama embracing the characterization as the candidate most able to bring change to Washington. Before the official launch of her campaign, aides for Clinton were already planning to position her as the 'change' candidate, as strategist Mark Penn made clear in an October 2006 memo titled "The Plan."[49] In his presidential run announcement, Obama framed his candidacy by emphasizing that "Washington must change."[50] In response to this, Clinton adopted her experience as a major campaign theme. By early and mid-2007, polls regularly found voters identifying Clinton as the more experienced candidate and Obama as the "fresh" or "new" candidate.[51][52] Exit polls on Super Tuesday found that while Obama won voters who thought that the ability to bring change was the most important quality in a candidate, who made up a majority of the Democratic electorate, by a margin of about 2-1, Clinton was able to make up for this deficiency by an almost total domination among voters who thought experience was the most important quality.[53] These margins generally remained the same until Obama clinched the Democratic nomination on June 3.

John McCain quickly adopted similar campaign themes against Obama at the start of the general election campaign. Polls regularly found the general electorate as a whole divided more evenly between 'change' and 'experience' as candidate qualities than the Democratic primary electorate, which split in favor of 'change' by a nearly 2-1 margin.[54] Advantages for McCain and Obama on experience and the ability to bring change, respectively, remained steady through the November 4 election, although final pre-election polling found that voters considered Obama's inexperience less of an impediment than McCain's association with sitting President George W. Bush,[55] an association which was rhetorically framed by the Obama campaign throughout the election season as "more of the same."

McCain appeared to undercut his line of attack by picking first-term Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate.[56] Palin had been governor only since 2006, and prior to that had been a council member and mayor of Wasilla. Nonetheless, she excited much of the conservative base of the GOP with her speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention, a group that was initially lukewarm toward McCain's candidacy.[57] Media interviews suggested that Palin lacked knowledge on certain key issues, and they cast doubt among many voters about her qualifications to be Vice President or President.[58] In addition, because of Palin's conservative views, there was also concern that, while she would bring conservatives to McCain, she would also alienate independents and moderates, two groups that pundits observed McCain would need to win the election.[59]

The economyEdit

Polls taken in the last few months of the presidential campaign as well as exit polls conducted on election day showed the economy as the top concern for voters.[60][61] In the fall of 2008, the economy suffered its most serious downturn since the Great Depression.Template:Fact During this period John McCain's election prospects fell with several politically costly comments about the economy.

On August 20, John McCain said in an interview with Politico that he was uncertain how many houses he and his wife, Cindy, owned; "I think — I'll have my staff get to you."[62] Both on the stump and in Obama's political ad, "Seven", the gaffe was used to portray McCain as unable to relate to the concerns of ordinary Americans. This out-of-touch image was further cultivated when, on September 15, at a morning rally in Jacksonville, Florida, McCain declared that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong," despite what he described as "tremendous turmoil in our financial markets and Wall Street."[63] With the perception among voters to the contrary, the comment appeared to cost McCain politically.

On September 24, 2008, after the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, McCain announced that he was suspending his campaign to return to Washington to help craft a $700 billion bailout package for the troubled financial industry, and he stated that he would not debate Obama until Congress passed the bailout bill.[64] Despite this decision, McCain was portrayed as not playing a significant role in the negotiations for the first version of the bill, which fell short of passage in the House. He eventually decided to attend the first presidential debate on September 26, despite the bill going nowhere in Congress. His ineffectiveness in the negotiations and his reversal in decision to attend the debates was seized upon to portray McCain as erratic in his response to the economy. Days later, a second version of the original bailout bill was passed by both the House and Senate, with Obama, his vice presidential running mate Joe Biden, and McCain all voting for the measure.

All of the aforementioned remarks and campaign issues hurt McCain's standing with voters. All these also occurred after the economic crisis and after McCain's poll numbers had started to fall. Although soundbites of all of these "missteps" were played repeatedly on national television, most pundits and analysts agree that it was the actual financial crisis and economic conditions that caused McCain's large drop in support in mid-September and severely damaged his campaign.[65][66]

Presidential and vice-presidential debatesEdit

Main article: United States presidential election debates, 2008

Four debates were announced by the Commission on Presidential Debates:[67]

  • September 26: The first presidential debate took place at the University of Mississippi. The central issues debated were foreign policy and national security. The debate was formatted into nine nine-minute segments, and the moderator (Jim Lehrer) introduced the topics.[68]
  • October 2: The vice-presidential debate was hosted at Washington University in St. Louis, and was moderated by Gwen Ifill of PBS.
  • October 7: The second presidential debate took place at Belmont University. It was a town meeting format debate moderated by NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, and addressed issues raised by members of the audience, particularly the economy.
  • October 15: The third and final presidential debate was hosted at Hofstra University. It focused on domestic and economic policy. Like the first presidential debate, it was formatted into a number of segments, with moderator Bob Schieffer introducing the topics.

Another debate was sponsored by the Columbia University political union and took place there on October 19. All candidates who could theoretically win the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election were invited, and Ralph Nader, Cynthia McKinney, and Chuck Baldwin agreed to attend. Amy Goodman, principal host of Democracy Now!, moderated. It was broadcast on cable by C-SPAN and on the Internet by Break-the-Matrix.[69][70]

Campaign costsEdit

Main article: Fundraising for the 2008 United States presidential election

The reported cost of campaigning for President has increased significantly in recent years. One source reported that if the costs for both Democratic and Republican campaigns are added together (for the Presidential primary election, general election, and the political conventions) the costs have more than doubled in only eight years ($448.9 million in 1996, $649.5 million in 2000, and $1.01 billion in 2004).[71] In January 2007, Federal Election Commission Chairman Michael E. Toner estimated the 2008 race will be a $1 billion election, and that to be taken seriously, a candidate needed to raise at least $100 million by the end of 2007.[72]

Although he had said he would not be running for president, published reports indicated that billionaire and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg had been considering a presidential bid as an independent with up to $1 billion of his own fortune to finance it.[73] Bloomberg ultimately ended this speculation by unequivocally stating that he would not run.[74] Had Bloomberg decided to run, he would not have needed to campaign in the primary elections or participate in the conventions, greatly reducing both the necessary length and cost of his campaign, but perhaps also its exposure.

With the increase in money, the public financing system funded by the presidential election campaign fund checkoff has not been used by many candidates. John McCain,[75] Tom Tancredo,[76] John Edwards,[77] Chris Dodd,[78] and Joe Biden[79] qualified for and elected to take public funds in the primary. Other major candidates eschewed the low amount of spending permitted, or gave other reasons as in the case of Barack Obama, and chose not to participate.

Internet campaignsEdit

Howard Dean collected large contributions via the internet in his 2004 primary run. In 2008 candidates went even further to reach out to Internet users through their own sites and such sites as YouTube, MySpace and Facebook.[80][81]

Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama created a broad grassroots movement and a new method of campaigning by courting and mobilizing activists, donations and voters through the Internet. It was part of a campaign that mobilized grassroots workers in every state. Obama also set fundraising records in more than one month by gaining support from a record-breaking number of individual small donors.[82]

On December 16, 2007, Ron Paul collected $6 million, more money on a single day through Internet donations than any presidential candidate in US history.[83]

Anonymous and semi-anonymous smear campaigns traditionally done with fliers and push calling also spread to the Internet.[84] Organizations specializing in the production and distribution of viral material, such as Brave New Films, emerged; such organizations have been said to be having a growing influence on American politics.[85]

General Campaign Expense SummaryEdit

According to required campaign filings as reported by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), a total of 148 candidates for all parties had raised a collective total of $1,644,712,232 and spent $1,601,104,696 for the primary and general campaigns combined through November 24, 2008. The amounts raised and spent by the major candidates, according to the same source, were as follows:

  • Candidate (Party) / Amount raised / Amount spent / Votes = Average spent per vote
  • Barack Obama (D) / $532,946,511 / $513,557,218 / 69,456,897 = $7.39 per vote
  • John McCain (R) / $379,006,485 / $346,666,422 / 59,934,814 = $5.78
  • Ralph Nader (I) / $4,496,180 / $4,187,628 / 738,475 = $5.67
  • Bob Barr (L) / $1,383,681 / $1,345,202 / 523,686 = $2.57
  • Chuck Baldwin (C) / $261,673 / $234,309 / 199,314 = $1.18
  • Cynthia McKinney (G) / $240,130 / $238,968 / 161,603 = $1.48

Excludes spending by independent expenditure concerns.

Source: Federal Election Commission[86]

Election controversiesEdit

Main article: 2008 United States presidential election controversies

Election resultsEdit

File:Poll Closing Times 2008.svg

Election DayEdit

November 4, 2008 was Election Day in 49 states and the District of Columbia; it was the last of 21 consecutive election days in Oregon, which abolished the voting booth in 1998. The majority of states allowed early voting with all states allowing some form of absentee voting.[87] Voters cast votes for listed presidential candidates but were actually selecting their state's slate of Electoral College members.

A McCain victory quickly became improbable as Obama amassed early wins in the Northeast, and the critical swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania by 9:20 PM.[88] He also won the entire Northeast by comfortable margins, and the Great Lakes states of Michigan and Wisconsin, and neighboring Minnesota by double digits. All American networks called the election in favor of Barack Obama at 11:00 PM Eastern Standard Time as the polls closed on the West Coast, with the Electoral College totals being updated to 297 for Obama and 146 for McCain (270 are needed to win). Senator McCain gave a concession speech about half an hour later. President-elect Barack Obama appeared at midnight Eastern time, November 5, in Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois, in front of a crowd of 250,000 people to deliver his acceptance speech.[89]

File:Cartogram-2008 Electoral Vote.png

Following Obama's speech, spontaneous street parties broke out in major cities across the United States including major cities, such as New York City, Miami, Chicago, Columbus, Ohio, Detroit, Boston, Seattle, Washington D.C.,San Francisco, Denver, Atlanta, Madison, Wisconsin, and Philadelphia. [90] and around the world in Bonn; Berlin; Obama, Japan; Toronto; Rio de Janeiro; Sydney; and Nairobi, Kenya.[91]

Later on election night, after Obama was named the President-elect, he picked up several more wins in swing states in which the polls had shown a close race. These included Florida, Indiana, Virginia, and the western states of Colorado and Nevada. All of these states had been carried by George Bush in 2004. However, North Carolina and the bellwether state of Missouri remained undecided for several days. Eventually, Obama won North Carolina, and McCain won Missouri, with Obama pulling out a rare win in Nebraska's 2nd congressional district. This put the total projected electoral vote count at 365 for Obama and 173 for McCain. Obama was able to win 12 of the 15 most populated states, losing only in Georgia, McCain's home state of Arizona and George W. Bush's home state of Texas. His victories in the populated swing states of Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina contributed to his decisive win. The presidential electors cast their ballots for President and Vice President, and these votes were tallied by Congress on January 8, 2009.

Grand totalEdit

Popular vote totals are from the official final state tallies as detailed in the state-by-state "Popular vote" table below. The electoral vote totals were certified by Congress on January 8, 2009.

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