From the modern-day trappings of iPhones to the traditional voting booth, Barack Obama waged more than a political campaign. He led a movement that reshaped the electoral map and demolished the last racial hurdle in American politics, an obstacle as old as the country itself.
And no matter what record he creates as president, history’s yardstick almost certainly will use the events of Nov. 4, 2008, to size up Mr. Obama’s storied rise to the presidency. The measurements that history’s first scribes recorded Tuesday poignantly tell the story.
Election morning began with the buzzing of more than 3 million BlackBerrys, pagers and cell phones. The man who transformed the Internet into a personal tether to Main Street America was taking nothing for granted. He had one last message to share: “People who love their country can change it! Make sure everyone you know votes today for Barack by 9 p.m.,” his text message implored.
By midday, millions of new voters had crowded schoolhouses and wrapped around street corners from coast to coast, waiting hours for the chance to cast their first ballots. Many newcomers were Americans of youthful exuberance or minorities whose detachment from the happenings inside the nation’s capital left them on the sidelines of elections past. Suddenly, they were pilgrims on their maiden voyage to democracy’s greatest destination: the voting booth.
“I feel somehow strong and energized to stand here even without food and water. What matters is to cast my vote,” Ahmed Bowling said from a polling line in Arlington, Va., summing up the sentiments of his fellow citizens.
From the JumboTrons on Times Square to the aging television sets in the Mississippi Delta, many stayed glued throughout the day to the images of democracy in action. At lunch hour, workers used their office computers to surf the Web for any inkling of what the night’s election results would hold.
As darkness fell, long polling lines gave way to results-watching parties in homes, at bars, even in the streets. From ardent supporters to the simple curious bystanders, Americans wanted to know whether the son of a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother, raised mostly by his grandparents in middle-class surroundings, could rise to the highest office of the land.
Chicago, Mr. Obama’s home, became ground zero for an anticipated celebration with more than 125,000 people.
One by one, Mr. Obama captured the prized states of the electoral map from New England to the industrialized Midwest. Soon, he was turning traditional red states blue. None was more emblematic of the sweeping change than Virginia, a state that before Tuesday night hadn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1964.
At 11:01 p.m., an entire nation exhaled as the networks proclaimed Mr. Obama had captured the necessary 270 electoral votes to become America’s 44th president, and the first of color. From the grassy fields of Chicago’s Grant Park to the paved streets where race riots erupted a half century ago in the District of Columbia, tears flowed, cheers rose and dancing commenced.
“As an African-American woman, I think about all the people before me who died for us to be able to vote, and to see this happening, it’s just awesome,” said Robin Wallace, a 48-year-old D.C. resident who celebrated in the capital’s U Street neighborhood that 40 years earlier had been decimated by riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King.
The math kept working in Mr. Obama’s favor — with the Electoral College total reaching at least 349 in what amounted to a landslide.
In the early hours Wednesday, Mr. Obama finally shuttered the campaign Web site that had helped him amass more than $600 million in donations from an unprecedented 3 million Americans.
If those numbers weren’t enough, Mr. Obama’s triumph also could be measured in the generosity of the man he vanquished on election night and the other whom he will evict from the White House on Jan. 20.
Mr. Obama’s election, President Bush declared, “showed a watching world the vitality of our democracy and the strides we have made toward a more perfect union.” John McCain, the war hero and quarter-century fixture of Congress, used his own evocative language to praise the man who had just defeated him.
Mr. Obama inspired the hopes of people “who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence” in electing a president, Mr. McCain declared. “This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.”
The significance was also acknowledged by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the first black woman to hold her position. “I am especially proud because this is a country that’s been through a long journey in terms of overcoming wounds and making race not the factor in our lives. That work is not done, but [Tuesday] was obviously an extraordinary step forward.”