Millions of Americans, white and black, went to bed on Tuesday night saying, "I never thought I'd live to see the day." We have lived to see the day.
The most remarkable result in the networks' state-by-state exit polls was something that did not show up: heightened racial division. Forty-three percent of white voters nationwide voted for Barack Obama. His white support was as high as, or slightly higher than, that of previous Democratic presidential candidates. John Kerry took 41 percent of the white vote; Al Gore took 42 percent; Bill Clinton, 39 percent (in 1992); Michael Dukakis, 40 percent; Walter Mondale, 35 percent; and Jimmy Carter, 35 percent (in 1980). Obama was tied with Clinton, who got 43 percent of the white vote in 1996, and slightly behind Carter's 47 percent in 1976. It was as if race didn't matter.
It did matter, of course, to some voters. But being African-American may have helped Obama at least as much as it hurt him. He got a solid 95 percent of the African-American vote. And for all the debate over whether Latino voters would support a black candidate, it turned out to be a nonissue. The Latino vote nationwide went 66 percent to 31 percent for Obama. John McCain's support among Latinos was nearly 10 points lower than President Bush's was in 2004.
And for all the debate about Obama's sympathy for Israel, Jewish voters went 77 percent to 22 percent for him -- about the same level of support that Jews gave Kerry in 2004 (74 percent to 25 percent over Bush).
Only Southern whites seemed resistant to Obama's appeal, voting 68 percent to 32 percent for McCain. Even so, Obama managed to peel off the fastest-growing states in the South outside of Texas.
Obama's victory symbolized a central theme of his campaign: unity. "We are one nation, all of us proud, all of us patriots," Obama said at his final campaign rally in Florida on Monday. "The men and women who serve on our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and independents, but they have fought together and bled together, and some died together, under the same proud flag. They have not served a red America or a blue America -- they have served the United States of America." It was the same theme that electrified the country in Obama's first national speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention -- a promise to accomplish what Bush promised in 1999 and failed to deliver. The president as a uniter, not a divider.
In the end, Bush played a key role in uniting the country -- against him. In the exit polls, a whopping 71 percent of Americans said they disapproved of the job that Bush is doing as president. Two-thirds of this group voted for Obama. McCain managed to squeeze out 31 percent of the vote among Bush's opponents as he tried to claim the mantle of change for himself. But Bush was like a huge boulder blocking McCain's path. There was no way that McCain could get around that rock.
It wasn't a personal vote. Obama won the election on the issues. A solid 58 percent of the voters said that their candidate's positions on the issues drove their vote; among these voters, 60 percent went for Obama. Just 39 percent said that their candidate's personal and leadership qualities were driving factors; they went nearly 60 percent for McCain.
The economy dominated all other issues. More than 90 percent of voters deemed the nation's economy "not so good" or "poor." These folks voted 54 percent for Obama. More than 40 percent said that their family's financial situation had deteriorated over the past four years. This group voted 70 percent for Obama.
Given a choice of five issues as "the most important facing the country," 63 percent of voters chose the economy, and most of them voted for Obama. What happened to terrorism, the issue that dominated the 2004 election and got Bush re-elected? Just 9 percent called it the most important issue, and these voters went strongly for McCain. What happened to the war in Iraq, the issue that dominated the 2006 midterm election? Ten percent rated it the highest; most of them were anti-war voters who went for Obama.
Obama's victory was a victory for "the new America," which means, above all, young people. He got two-thirds of the votes of Americans under age 30 and just over half of the vote among those 30 to 64 years old. The only age group that sided with McCain was seniors. Literally, the old America.
This article appears in the November 8, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.