Americans went to the polls on Tuesday to choose the next president of the United States, deciding whether Senator Barack Obama or Senator John McCain was better suited to guide the nation through an economic crisis at home and two wars abroad.
In voting booths in every corner of the land, the people were collectively writing the ending to a political saga that has been unfolding for nearly two years, during a tumultuous, uncertain period of American history in which record numbers of people expressed concerns that the country was heading down the wrong track.
Voters began lining up before dawn at polling locations up and down the East Coast, in what election officials said was an unprecedented level of turnout.
Mr. Obama cast his ballot at an elementary school in Chicago shortly before 9 a.m. Eastern time, and his running mate, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, followed suit soon afterward in Wilmington, Del.
And in tiny Dixville Notch, N.H., which casts its ballots just after midnight, Mr. Obama won 15 votes to Mr. McCain’s 6. President Bush won the vote there in 2004.
In Richmond, Va., the capital city of a battleground state, voters started lining up at 5 a.m., and by 6 a.m., lines were already an hour long. They stood in line through a steady drizzle, sipping coffee and reading newspapers, as election officials offered voting instructions.
Whoever wins on Tuesday — Mr. Obama, the Democratic nominee, or Mr. McCain, the Republican — the election will make history. If Mr. Obama is elected, he will become the nation’s first African-American president. And if Mr. McCain wins, his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, will be the first woman elected vice president.
Presidential elections are really 51 state-by-state elections (including the District of Columbia), and for Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain the day was all about trying to win enough of those states to get the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the presidency. To that end they spent the last days and hours of the campaign making their final pushes in closely contested states from Florida to Virginia to Colorado that could tip the balance in favor of either man.
Looming over the race was the unpopular Republican president, George W. Bush, whose approval ratings are hovering at record lows after starting a war in Iraq that many Americans concluded was a mistake, and presiding during an economic collapse this fall that left millions of people worrying about their mortgages and retirement savings.
Mr. Obama, 47, a first-term senator from Illinois, premised his candidacy on change, arguing that he would turn the page on President Bush’s policies and make the country respected again at home and abroad. Mr. McCain, 72, a son and grandson of admirals who served five and a half years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, ran as the most experienced candidate to be commander-in-chief, but also argued that he had long bucked his party and would bring change to Washington as well.
The two men offered starkly different proposals. Mr. Obama called for ending the war in Iraq over a period of about 16 months, and Mr. McCain for continuing it until victory was achieved. Mr. Obama wanted to roll back President Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, and to cut taxes for the middle class; Mr. McCain wanted to extend the Bush tax cuts and cut taxes on businesses. Mr. Obama wanted to use government money to expand health insurance for the uninsured, and to require coverage for all children, while Mr. McCain wanted to give individuals tax credits to go toward buying their own insurance.
In some areas, both men promised a break from the Bush administration, even if they differed on the details: both agreed that global warming was real, and promised to take steps to reduce it; both pledged to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and both were outspoken in condemning torture after reports of waterboarding and other abuse of prisoners at the hands of American captors surfaced in recent years.
During the long, grueling campaign, Mr. Obama repeatedly claimed that Mr. McCain would effectively represent a third term for Mr. Bush. And while Mr. McCain has at times been a thorn in Mr. Bush’s side, as a presidential candidate he was proposing to continue enough of Mr. Bush’s policies, from tax cuts to the Iraq war, that the charge seemed to stick. Mr. McCain, for his part, painted Mr. Obama as unprepared, noting that only four years ago he was still a member of the Illinois State Senate, and trying to sow doubts about him by suggesting that he was still largely an unknown quantity.For all the big issues, there were plenty of fleeting, insubstantial controversies as well. Mr. McCain mocked Mr. Obama as a substance-free celebrity, and Mr. Obama mocked Mr. McCain for being unable to remember how many homes he owned. At times the contest grew ugly, with Mr. McCain all but suggesting that Mr. Obama was a socialist for his tax-cut proposal, and Ms. Palin accusing Mr. Obama of “palling around with terrorists” for working sporadically with a former 1960s radical.
It was a presidential campaign that shattered all kinds of records, from the number of votes cast during the long, bitterly contested primary and caucus season to the huge amount of money raised and spent on the general election after Mr. Obama withdrew from his pledge to accept public financing of his campaign. And during a campaign season that lasted nearly two years, it sometimes seemed that the road to the White House had more twists and turns than Lombard Street in San Francisco.
Both Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain went through lean periods when they were considered long shots for their parties’ nomination, only to prevail in the end.
Mr. McCain had entered the race as the presumptive Republican frontrunner by virtue of having been the runner-up in 2000, and by the way he had raised his profile in the years since then by passing a campaign finance bill that bore his name, and appearing frequently on television, often as an independent voice, bucking his party.
But things soured for him in 2007. The Iraq war he had championed grew deeply unpopular, and at a time many were proposing scaling back the American presence there he was calling for adding more troops, leading many to question whether he could win over the independent voters who had always been central to his strategy. Then his support for overhauling the nation’s immigration laws provoked a vitriolic backlash among Republicans, whose support he needed to win the party’s nomination. After spending lavishly but falling short in fundraising, his campaign was nearly broke by the summer of 2007, and his candidacy was all but written off by the Washington establishment.
He scaled back, focused all his resources on winning the New Hampshire primary, and hoped for the best. Then things began to go his way. Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who had invested heavily in Iowa and New Hampshire, was embarrassed and weakened when he lost the Iowa caucuses to Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor. Rudolph W. Giuliani, who led in many polls for much of the fall, began to fade as the voting neared, and adopted a risky strategy of holding back resources for the Florida Primary. Fred D. Thompson’s highly anticipated candidacy failed to generate much excitement when he belatedly entered the race.
It was against that backdrop that Mr. McCain was able to win the New Hampshire primary, beating a weakened Mr. Romney and putting himself on the road to the nomination after racking up wins in South Carolina and Florida and the many states that voted on Feb. 5.
Mr. Obama entered the race as a long shot at a time when many Democrats expected Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York or former Senator John Edwards to win the party’s nomination. But his campaign quickly inspired a core of committed young people, and his speeches became political events, drawing huge, transfixed crowds. At the same time he proved himself to be a prodigious fundraiser, making the party take him seriously, and cast himself as a change from politics of the Bush and Clinton years.
He was propelled forward by his victory in the Iowa caucuses, which took on an added significance by signaling to many Democrats that if an African-American could win an overwhelmingly white state like Iowa, he could win elsewhere. But Mrs. Clinton went on to beat him in New Hampshire, presaging a long battle to the nomination.
Mr. Obama was helped by two things. As a former community organizer, he placed an emphasis on organizing supporters in caucus states, many of which were overlooked by the Clinton campaign, but which won him delegates. And unlike the Republicans, who awarded their state delegates on the winner-take-all system, the Democratic rules awarded their delegates proportionally, meaning that Mr. Obama was able to pick up large numbers of delegates even in states he lost to Mrs. Clinton.
In the end, she fell short, and he became the Democratic presidential nominee.
Mr. Obama chose a more experienced hand, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, as his running mate, tapping someone with extensive foreign policy experience but a propensity for making the occasional gaffe. Mr. McCain picked Ms. Palin of Alaska, arguing that her willingness to buck her party elders there made her a perfect fit for him. The choice galvanized social conservatives who had long been wary of McCain, but turned off some independents who came to view her as unprepared.
If both Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain were chosen by the parties in large part because of their positions on the Iraq war — Mr. Obama for opposing it from the beginning, and Mr. McCain for supporting the surge strategy that was later credited with reducing violence there — the election quickly turned to pocketbook issues. Four-dollar-a-gallon gas prices over the summer provoked outrage, and the worsening economy reached crisis proportions this fall when the nation’s financial institutions teetered on the brink of collapse and required a huge government bailout.And the family lives of the candidates did not pause for the campaign. One of Mr. McCain’s sons, Jimmy, a Marine, did a tour in Iraq, and both Ms. Palin and Mr. Biden bid farewell to their sons, who were going off to Iraq. Ms. Palin announced on the day the Republican National Convention began that her daughter Bristol, 17, was pregnant and engaged to be married. Mr. Biden’s mother-in-law died last month, and on Monday, the day before the election, Mr. Obama’s grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who helped raise him during his teenage years, died in Hawaii.