Barack Obama’s victory was inevitable

The maps on the television screens started turning blue as soon as the polls had closed on the East Coast; by midnight, John McCain had conceded the presidency to Barack Obama. But I had known the election result many hours before. I didn’t have special access to internal campaign data, or an early glimpse of the exit polls. I simply had one conversation, and one email exchange, which together told me everything I needed to know.
The conversation was with my sister, who lives in Florida, a bitterly contested battleground state. Florida was split down the middle in 2000, went for George W. Bush in 2004, and was considered a possible McCain state this year too. But as election day dawned, my sister told me that even though a huge percentage of Floridians had already taken advantage of early voting, there were still queues – everywhere – and many of the people standing in them were black. Clearly, those patiently waiting, sometimes for hours, were not waiting to vote for McCain. Those holding up signs saying “Make History: Vote!” weren’t intending to make history by voting for McCain either.
The subsequent email exchange was with an old friend, a staunch Republican who is married to an even stauncher Republican – a rather famous one too. Despite this family circumstance she had, she confessed, just voted for Obama. Though she’d had her doubts, she suddenly found, on election day, that the decision was easy. More than easy: uplifting. When she emerged from the polling booth, she had a spring in her step, because she had just voted for the first black president. “And that’s no small thing, ” she wrote: “Maybe even worth some higher taxes.”
And that was how, by about 10am, East Coast time, before the polls had opened in much of the country, I knew two extremely important pieces of information.
Number one: Black Americans were, for the first time in recent history, already voting in high numbers. Really, really high numbers. If the indelible image of the 2000 election was that of lawyers flocking to Florida to dispute the result, 2008 will be remembered for the photographs of those first-time voters, patiently waiting their turn to mark a ballot or pull a lever. The Obama campaign had identified and steadily lobbied some 600,000 Florida blacks who had registered to vote but didn’t show up in the past. Their efforts paid off, in Florida and everywhere else.
Number two: Not just Democrats, not just independents, not just “swing voters” but actual, hard-core Republicans were so moved by the prospect of a black president – and so disgusted by the Bush administration – that they had decided to switch sides and vote for Obama. This happened despite the accusations that flew around towards the end of the campaign – that Obama was a socialist, a Marxist, a secret Muslim, a radical. None of those epithets really stuck, or at least not everywhere. In the end his inclusive, centrist, bipartisan rhetoric proved more powerful than even the hard evidence of his solid, left-liberal voting record. He repeated some of it again in his acceptance speech, after quoting Abraham Lincoln, who was a Republican: “I may not have won your vote tonight,” he told McCain’s electorate, “but I hear your voices, I want your help and I will be your president too.”
As a rule, I dislike the word “historic” when used to describe elections: all elections are “historic”, after all, and I seem to remember that the election of 2004 was meant to have been extraordinarily significant, deeply meaningful, and a thundering denunciation of Bush/Cheney/Iraq etc. It wasn’t.
Despite the rhetoric on both sides, this election isn’t “historic” either, in the sense that it presented the American people with some kind of monumental choice between presidents who would have had vastly different policies, and would have made vastly different decisions. Let’s be clear here: whoever walks into the White House on inauguration day has limited choices, narrow possibilities, and almost no room for manoeuvre. There is no budget surplus to play with, no “peace dividend” to be had from cutting military spending. The economic and financial conundrums facing the next administration are so complex as to defy simple ideology. It doesn’t matter whether the next president is Left or Right, Democratic or Republican: he still has to make sure that banks continue to lend money, the housing market continues to function, Afghanistan and Iraq do not deteriorate into chaos. I have absolutely no doubt that President McCain would have made many of the same decisions about many of these issues as will President Obama.
Nevertheless, this was a completely different election from any in recent years, as both the turnout and the cross-party voting reveal – and it has produced a kind of euphoria that I’ve never seen in American politics before. “Change” didn’t seem like much of a slogan, when Obama supporters held it up on signs during rallies. “Yes, We Can” didn’t seem like much of a clarion call, when repeated over and over again.
But when the first black president-elect took the podium, with the new black First Lady beside him, it was impossible not to feel that something profound really had just changed, and that all kinds of other things really are now possible. If nothing else, the worst chapter of the American story – a chapter which began more than three centuries ago, when the first slave ships docked in Britain’s North American colonies – had just come to an end. Early yesterday morning, black Americans were sending a short text message to one another: “Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked so Barack could run. Barack is running so our children can fly.” Rosa was Rosa Parks, who refused to take a back seat on an Alabama bus. Martin was Martin Luther King, who marched on Washington and quoted the Declaration of Independence back at Americans: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Obama is their inheritor – and Obama knew it: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,” he told a cheering, weeping crowd in Chicago; and if anyone “still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time… tonight is your answer.”
McCain knew it too. In a gracious and memorable concession speech, he praised Obama for “inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president.” A century ago, he reminded his sombre audience, a previous American president, Theodore Roosevelt, was widely condemned for inviting the black scientist Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House: “America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States.”
In fact – improbable though it may sound – I am now completely convinced that it was not, in the end, a disadvantage for Obama to be black. On the contrary – as I predicted would be the case in January of last year – his race proved enormously advantageous, one of the keys to his victory. Obviously, it helped bring out that enormous black vote, which proved so crucial in states such as Florida. It may also have helped convince Hispanics, many of whom have voted Republican in the past, to switch to the Democrats too.
More importantly, though, his race was an enormous attraction for many white Americans too, even – or perhaps especially – some white Republicans. Here is something that may be hard for foreigners to understand: Americans desperately want to believe that their country stands for fairness, for equality, for democracy. They especially want to believe this at times like the present, when there is a good deal of evidence to the contrary. After the disasters and embarrassments of the past few years – the mistakes made in Iraq and Guantánamo, the terrible financial crisis, the embarrassment of Hurricane Katrina – a vote for Obama allowed Americans to believe, once again, that the United States is still a virtuous nation. It’s not just about being liked abroad, though being liked is nice: it’s about being certain that we still are, as we have often told ourselves, an example to other nations, a “city on a hill”.
Americans stood in line for that certainty, they crossed party lines to vote for it, they donated record amounts of money to the Obama campaign in search of it. In, the end, it comes down to this: all Americans are told, as children, that “anyone can grow up to be president of the United States.” And now, once again, we know that it’s true.