Home > 1968-2008 Campaigns, 2008 Campaign > By Joey Williams–2008 Presidential Election

By Joey Williams–2008 Presidential Election

The presidential election of 2008 was a historic election for the United States. While then-senator Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected as president of the United States, Joe Biden represented the first Roman Catholic to hold the office of Vice President. To get there, Obama first defeated Hillary Clinton in one of the most tightly contested primary elections in history. Although Clinton was long considered the frontrunner for the race, Obama won Iowa and gained momentum from there. After losing Iowa, the Clinton team was unprepared to recover and Obama continued to upset her in key elections. In June, after Obama secured the nomination to end a close race, Clinton delayed conceding the race by multiple days even though it was clear she knew it was over. When she finally conceded on June 7, 2008, she pledged her full support toward Obama, and would later accept a position as his Secretary of State. Although she lost the election, Clinton made history as the first woman in U.S. history to win a major political party primary election by winning the New Hampshire primary.

Upon winning the primary, Obama matched up against Senator John McCain in the general election. To match the historical ticket of Obama and Biden, McCain nominated Sarah Palin as his candidate for Vice President. Palin, the first woman ever on a Republican presidential ballot, had political experience as the Governor of Alaska from 2006-2009. Palin quickly grew a reputation of being dim-witted and unfit for office. Additionally, due to McCain’s age, many people complained about the possibility of Palin replacing him in office. Largely due to the historical implications of the election, voter turnout increased from previous elections. The demographic splits reflected the 25-year age difference between the two candidates, with Obama getting a significant majority of young voters and McCain getting the elderly vote. In a decisive victory, Obama received 365 electoral votes compared to McCain’s 173.

In the years leading up to the election, the United States waged a divisive war in Iraq. So, of course, during the 2008 election cycle, the war was one of the top issues that the candidates debated. John McCain supported the war from the beginning and continued to assert it was an important war. Obama, on the other hand, rejected the war from the beginning and maintained that there should be a timetable for the removal of all troops. This was a fair representation of the rhetorical strategies of the two candidates. John McCain’s campaign had a central theme of “fight” and “experience.” As he said in one of his TV ads, “one man does what’s best for America, not what’s easy.” Additionally, in response to the high likeability that Barack Obama had, McCain stated, “I didn’t go to Washington to win Mr. Congeniality, I went there to serve my country.” McCain’s main slogan was “country first.” Obama, on the other hand, took a more radical approach, using “Change” and “Yes We Can” as his main slogans.

Due to the economic recession of 2008, Obama’s “change” slogan was a very important part of his campaign. Many people were in difficult living situations due to the high unemployment levels, and a man who preaches drastic change was exactly the right person to garner national support. Additionally, Obama became known for his unwavering positivity about our country’s future. At a time when things seemed bleak for so many, maintaining a positive image of America allowed Obama to win over many undecided voters. Because of Obama maintained such a positive and likeable public persona, McCain took to regularly questioning his record VS. rhetoric. “He’s not willing to drill for energy, but he’s sure willing to drill for votes,” Sarah Palin exclaimed to a group of supporters in Pennsylvania. In the same speech, she referred to Obama as “a guy who’s just tried to talk his way into the White House.”

In addition to the economic and national security issues of the time, race played a large role in the election of 2008. Although Obama was the first African American nominated by a major U.S. party, he restrained from playing the race card throughout the election. This was mainly met with respect by the American people. Of course, to many racists in the country, an African American being an election away from holding the highest office in the country was very threatening. At many McCain rallies, racist chants were hurled toward the stage in support of the white candidate. While this was going on, McCain initially took the respectable approach of condemning racist supporters. In one incident, one woman told McCain at a rally that she was afraid of Obama because he is “an Arab.” Senator McCain, taking the high road, repeatedly shook his head and replied “no ma’am. He’s a decent, family man citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign is all about.” While he took this approach early, McCain fell off a little bit as he fell behind in the race. As Obama pulled ahead, McCain backed off from silencing his racist supporters.

Ultimately, Barack Obama entered the 2008 election prepared for the racial attacks he would get. Like Hillary Clinton’s gender in 2016, Obama knew that his race would play a role in how he was perceived. Instead of crumbling under the unfair expectation, Obama confidently and calmly carried himself to victory. While John McCain did not make any major mistakes, America wanted change and Barack Obama seemed to live and breathe it.


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