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How Obama won the White House

Presidential candidate Barack Obama triumphed in the contested states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Mexico, but his limited coattails left Democrats short of a filibuster-proof Senate majority.
President-elect Barack Obama
President-elect Barack Obama walks on stage to deliver his victory speech at Grant Park in Chicago on Tuesday night.David Guttenfelder / AP
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An Obama sweep?  Not quite.

Republican survival? Yes, in some states.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama gave his party what had been denied Democrats in 2000 and 2004.

He was within striking distance of matching Bill Clinton's 1996 triumph of 379 electoral votes.

Obama was able to win at least eight states that President Bush carried in 2004: Indiana, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio and Virginia.

Remarkably, Obama won New Mexico by 15 percentage points — the best performance by a Democratic presidential candidate in that state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

But he had limited coattails.

Imperiled Republican senators managed to win in Kentucky, where Minority Leader Mitch McConnell held onto his seat, as well as in Mississippi, where appointed Sen. Roger Wicker was projected to win, and in Maine, where Sen. Susan Collins was re-elected.

Filibuster-proof majority?
It now appears the Democrats may not get their much-desired, 60-seat filibuster-proof majority.

Yet the limited coattails should not detract from what is an historic performance.

And Obama won the White House in an unconventional way for a Democratic candidate. Case in point: Indiana.

Obama vividly illustrated the adage that 80 percent of life is showing up.

Indiana has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, but the Obama campaign made the state a focus of its strategy and it paid off with victory.

Take Vigo County, where Terre Haute is located. Four years ago, Bush carried the county with 53 percent. On Tuesday, Obama won the county with 57 percent.

The results demonstrated that the Obama high command made a brilliant decision.

In Indiana, Obama had the edge in the percent of voters who told exit poll interviewers that they were contacted by his campaign. Thirty-seven percent of Indiana voters sad they had been contacted by the Obama campaign, while on 23 percent said they’d been contacted by the McCain campaign. Voter contacted by the Obama campaign voted 62 percent to 32 percent in his favor.

As Obama campaign manager David Plouffe told Howard Fineman, the campaign would not deviate from the “expanded map” Electoral College strategy.

In the affluent suburban battlegrounds, from Pennsylvania to Colorado, Obama surpassed Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s 2004 performance.

In Chester County, Pa., where in recent years farms have been replaced by rows of houses in developments with names such as the “Reserve at Wayne Brook,” Obama won 54 percent. Four years ago, Bush carried Chester County with 52 percent.

Yet there was ticket splitting: Republican congressman Jim Gerlach, whose district includes much of Chester County, won election to his third term with 52 percent.

Bachmann prevails in MinnesotaAnd even in the face of a solid win for Obama in Minnesota — which the Democrat carried with 54 percent of the vote — the was projected to win re-election.

Bachmann won notoriety for saying on MSNBC's "Hardball" three weeks ago that, “The people Barack Obama has been associating with are anti-American, by and large.”

In Nebraska, after a hugely expensive battle with Democrat Jim Esch, Republican Rep. Lee Terry was projected to hold on to his seat. The contest was a test of the spillover effect of the Obama field organizing effort, which was aiming to win the one electoral vote in Nebraska’s second Congressional District. Nebraska and Maine are the only states to split their electoral votes.

Despite Obama’s remarkable performance in Indiana, embattled GOP congressman Mark Souder easily won re-election.

Black turnout about the same as 2004
There was no doubt that black voters were loyal to Obama. However contrary to predictions of historic participation, exit polls indicated that black turnout was either about the same or only slightly higher than in 2004 in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida and Mississippi. Obama was getting almost all black voters in those states.

And yet he also won states with relatively small black populations, such as New Hampshire, Iowa, Washington state, Minnesota, and Vermont.

The basic trend was that Obama was able to win hotly contested states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio because he was winning in every income group and every age group — and because voters who think the economy is in terrible shape were going for him in a big way.

In Pennsylvania, for example, 57 percent of voters said in exit poll interviews that they were “very worried” about the state of the economy. And Obama won 63 percent of such voters.

At the same time, Obama’s lack of experience at the national level did not seem to trouble voters in battleground states.

In Pennsylvania 56 percent of voters said Obama has sufficient experience to be an effective president — a remarkable result since only four years ago he was a state senator in Illinois, dealing with issues such as whether commuter trains in the Chicago area should have restrooms on them.

Other Pennsylvania findings, according to exit polling:

  • Obama won an estimated 60 percent of women voters in the state, besting Kerry’s performance among women in the state four years ago by 6 percent;
  • Among voters 65 years old and older, Obama edged McCain, 51 percent to 49 percent;
  • White voters were about evenly split between the two candidates, while four years ago Bush carried 54 percent of the white voters.

National pessimism about the economy
In the national exit poll sample it appeared that the electorate is worried about its sinking economic fortunes.

According to early NBC News exit poll interviews, more than nine out of 10 voters interviewed said economic conditions in America are “not so good” or “poor.” 

Nearly the same percentage said they were very worried or somewhat worried about the future course of the economy.

And six in 10 voters picked the economy as the most important issue facing the nation.

Such pessimism is usually a grim omen for the party in control of the White House. In the elections of 1992, 1980, 1960 and 1932, economic distress, to some degree, resulted in the party in control of the presidency losing the White House.

This pessimism is hardly surprising, given the decline in personal income reported last week by the Commerce Department.

Disposable personal income decreased by $102.4 billion, or nearly 4 percent in the third quarter of 2008, in contrast to an increase of $409.3 billion, or nearly 17 percent in the second quarter.

Contrast with 2004
When voters went to the polls in 2004, they were nearly evenly split about the condition of the economy, with 47 percent saying it was in excellent or good shape and 52 percent saying it was in fair or poor shape.

The economic pessimists in 2004 tended to vote for Kerry, with nearly 80 percent of them supporting him.

Those who were feeling upbeat about the economy in 2004 voted Republican, with nearly 90 percent of them backing Bush.

In 2004, voters were closely divided over the direction of the country. Almost half said the country was going in the right direction; a bit fewer than half said America was on the wrong track.

But this year, 76 percent of voters interviewed in the NBC exit poll said the country is “seriously off on the wrong track.”

Seven out of 10 voters interviewed said they were very or somewhat worried about another terrorist attack on the United States, a level unchanged from four years ago.

But only 9 percent of the voters interviewed in the exit poll said terrorism was the most important issue facing the country.