Michigan and Congress
In the end, things unfolded more or less as expected. The election had turned decisively against McCain in the past few weeks, and by the time Jeanine and I heard that Ohio had been called for Obama, just after we got out of the subway downtown, it was clear enough that McCain would be unable to overcome those long odds.
I spent the day working as an election judge for the 21st precinct of the 49th ward, where things were mostly uneventful, with no long lines (or any lines, for most of the day) or equipment problems in sight. Early voting numbers were substantial, and that particular precinct is located in the heart of the Loyola University campus, where few students were registered (most students register in their home precincts, not the college precinct). We had about 125 ballots cast for the day, which, couple with the early votes, represented a fairly substantial turnout in percentage terms.
Immediately after I finished there, Jeanine and I headed downtown. Jeanine had received a ticket for the Obama rally earlier in the day, so we were excited about that. After all, how often do you get to see a President-elect give his acceptance speech, even without the historical ramifications of this election? Shortly after, we learned that Pennsylvania had been called for Obama. This was expected, of course, but good news nonetheless since McCain’s closing strategy depended heavily on winning the state.
We got to Grant Park (at Michigan and Congress) at about 9:00, only to find a line stretching south down Michigan Avenue. And stretching. And stretching. By the time we got to the end of the line, we were at Michigan and Roosevelt, over half a mile from the park entrance. It took about an hour or so to get through, and all the while we were hearing various news and rumors about states that had been called. Finally, as we neared the park entrance, the networks officially called the race for Obama, and cheers went out up and down the street.
We got to the rally site just as McCain got to the meat of his concession speech. It didn’t get much reaction from the crowd, other than visceral disgust when he started talking up Sarah Palin. It’s possible, even likely, that McCain would have lost had he not selected her as running mate, but I can’t help thinking that her selection damaged him in a way that’s hard to measure. Obviously he wasn’t going to be popular with Chicago voters anyway, but with that selection, he went from a mostly respected if underwhelming candidate to a complete rightwing sellout in the eyes of a lot of people. In other words, I think it created hostility where there wasn’t any before, in exchange for what clearly was little tangible value.
At any rate, the rally site was already full by the time of our arrival. We ended up staking out a spot underneath the trees way in the back, where we could at least see the stage, no matter how far off it was. I thought his speech was perfectly appropriate, a gracious acceptance of victory but with a clear call to voters to stay engaged in governance now that the campaigning is over. I thought the story of the 106-year-old Georgia woman struck just the right note – a reminder of how quickly things can change but also of how hard it nonetheless can be for that change to take place.
Regardless of what happens from here, it’s hard not to see this as a watershed election. I don’t even mean that in terms of Obama himself, although a black President is obviously historical. But we saw three things yesterday:
1) A high turnout. The linked AP article shows disagreement over whether this was the highest turnout in a century, or merely the highest in a generation, but it’s clear that the electorate was highly charged this year.
As a footnote to this, let me also say this: one of the reasons that turnout wasn’t even higher is surely because some people simply don’t know how to vote. I estimate, at my precinct yesterday, that somewhere between 20-25 would-be voters were unable to cast a ballot because they weren’t registered in that precinct. In most cases, because they were college kids, they were actually registered somewhere else, even in a couple cases in different states, but had no way to cast a ballot because they couldn’t make it home to vote. Their only recourse was to cast a provisional ballot, but those won’t be counted because their registration is not valid.
In addition to that, some people showed up who simply were not registered to vote at all. They didn’t know that there was a registration deadline, and obviously they couldn’t vote. I hated turning people away, but that’s the state of things. The fact of the matter is that you have to jump through hoops in order to vote in most parts of the country, and if we made the process simpler and easier the turnout would be higher.
2) As that AP article indicates, the demographics of the elecorate have changed in this country. It is no longer possible to be elected President – or even to come all that close – just by winning a majority of white voters.
3) Exit polls are pretty clear that Obama won every age group other than senior citizens. This election is the passing of the torch, if you will, between generations of political power. The Republican Party is obviously not dead, but the current incarnation of it – dependent on jingoism, social conservatism, trickle-down economics – almost certainly is, at least as a national political force (it clearly remains strong as a force in the South).
The politics of the United States has changed. By 2012, the people who voted for McCain this year will be an even smaller percentage of the electorate than they are now, while Obama’s coalition will have grown. This doesn’t in any way tell us what will happen in 2012, but it does point to the challenge that Republicans will face between now and then.
In other races around the country, there were a few spots of bad news. I don’t understand how the Alaska Senate race can be close, with incumbent Ted Stevens’ recent felony corruption convictions and all; not even Tom DeLay could survive that, and he was only indicted (to this day, he’s yet to stand trial). As of right now, the race is yet to be called, though it looks as if Stevens will prevail. And the Prop 8 vote in California is patently ugly and disgusting, with the only silver lining being that the California constitution is notoriously easy to amend, making this result unlikely to stand for long.
But overall, it was a fantastic night. The eyes of the world were squarely focused on Chicago last night, and I think the city came through. It’s a small town in some ways, one of them being the way that they love seeing one of their own make good. The challenge is now on the Democrats to make good on their promises, having consolidated power in the House and Senate in addition to winning the Presidency. It’ll be a tough four years, but I’m looking forward to them.