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For this paper, each student will choose a presidential election from the post-war era (so 1948-2012) and write a short (5-7 pages) analysis of the election discussing the key factors and circumstances of the election. This should be guided by the course material, and you’ll need citations, including at least two “dead tree” sources.
One may be from the syllabus, but the other one must not be.

William H. Flanigan and Nancy H. Zingale, Political Behavior of the
American Electorate, 12th edition
Gary C. Jacobson, The Politics of Congressional Elections
Richard G. Niemi & Herbert F. Weisberg, eds. Controversies in
Voting Behavior



Introduction. 2

Critical issues in the presidential race. 2

Influence of political parties. 4

Candidate characteristics. 5

Campaign funding and strategy. 6

The election outcome: Factors that turned the tide. 8

Conclusions. 8

References. 9


This paper analyzes the 2008 presidential election. In this election, Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama triumphed over his Republic challenger John McCain to become the forty fourth president of the US. He also became the first ever African-American citizen to become US president. The analysis focuses on five aspects of the historic election; namely critical issues in the presidential race, influence of political parties, candidate characteristics, campaign funding, and election outcome. In the discussion on election outcome, focus is on the main factors that made the tide turn in favor of Barack Obama. The objective is to create a better understanding of electoral behavior in the US.

Critical issues in the presidential race

During this election, two critical issues emerged as dominant; namely the economic recession and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The election came at a time when the US was in the middle of the deepest economic recession in eighty years. It also came at a time when the US was war-weary, having recently invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in quick succession. Although many other issues were of concern to Americans, these two critical issues dominated the 2008 presidential election campaign. Other less salient issues included race, and the threat posed by China’s protectionist trade practices.


During the 2008 election, the US was going through a historic economic crisis. The housing bubble had burst, the financial market had declined sharply, and the rate of unemployment was increasing. The economic crisis had sent ripples across the world. During this same time, China continued to pursue protectionist trade practices that ran contrary to the US national interest. On the other hand, many Americans had become increasingly skeptical of the military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, which had taken place on a large scale during the administration of the outgoing president George W. Bush.

At the same time, the 2008 election accorded the first African-American candidate in the history of the country a meaningful chance to become president. Moreover, the outgoing president had become extremely unpopular. This was evident in the fact that his job approval rating was about 25 percent during the last quarter of 2008 (Niemi & Weisberg, 2012). In fact, at that time, he was being named among the most unpopular presidents in the recent US history such as Harry Truman and Richard Nixon (Niemi & Weisberg, 2012).

The twin issues of economy and war made many Americans to believe that if a Republican candidate was elected president, he would continue with the same old failed policies of President George W. Bush. Whereas the issue of war brought to the fore aspects of the US foreign policy, the issues of economy and race enabled Americans to grapple with more depressing domestic problems.

John McCain, a white American and the Republican presidential candidate during this election, suffered an overwhelming loss to Democratic Party’s Barack Obama, an African-American. Obama had entered the national presidential race with the simple message of change. His highly energized, well-organized national campaign held appeal to majority of Americans because of the way it emphasized on the need for change. In truth, America needed change in many aspects both domestically and internationally. Many Americans liked Obama’s point of view indicating the US should never have entangled herself with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He went on to assure Americans that he would bring all the US armed forces back home from Iraq and Afghanistan during his first term as president.

Influence of political parties

Political parties had a great influence on the race. Many Americans felt that electing a Republican candidate would simply lead to the continuation of the same old policies of President Bush. The main contest was between Republicans and Democrats. No third party involvement seemed to tilt the scales from these two big parties that have traditionally dominated politics in the US.

Long before the 2008 presidential election was held, predictions by several forecasting models showed that a candidate of the Democratic Party would win (Pasek & Tahk, 2009). This was a clear indication that the Democratic Party had become more popular than the Republican Party. This popularity started being evident in 2004 when the Democratic Party took control of Congress. The forecast may also have been greatly informed by the negative association between the Republican Party and President George W. Bush. Some of the factors that influenced the predictions in favor of a Democratic Party candidate include the approval rate of the sitting president and the state of the national economy.

The main strength of the Republican Party came in the person of its presidential candidate, Senator John McCain, its presidential candidate. Some of the main factors that worked in McCain’s favor include race, experience in the military, and experience in government. He was a seasoned politician unlike Obama. McCain had served in the Senate for 23 years (Pasek & Tahk, 2009). Moreover, he had served in the military for 22 years (Pasek & Tahk, 2009).

During the presidential campaigns, the relative strength of Democrats was evident in the fact that they were in control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Moreover, they seemed poised to retain this control. Those who opted to vote for McCain may have done so in the hope of succeeding to keep the governments out of the hands of democrats alone. This may particularly seem true considering that the republican candidate has a history of bipartisanism. This bipartisanism is evident in the way he co-sponsors bills with Democrats in the Senate.

Candidate characteristics

During the 2008 election, the characteristics of individual candidates also weighed heavily in the presidential outcome. Barack Obama, the Democratic Party candidate, was more or less a newcomer in national politics, particularly when compared with Republican candidate John McCain. A lot of focus during the campaigns was on his political experience and his personality traits. His charismatic character endeared him to Americans across the racial, class, and political divide. This greatly contributed to his eventual win to become president.

As a charismatic leader, Obama positioned himself as a voice of hope, optimism, and change in America. He understood the fact that many Americans were frustrated with the country’s economy, criticism from the international community, and two hastily organized and improperly managed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. By focusing a lot on these issues, his strategy was to ride on a massive wave of change and win the election.

However, Obama faced several disadvantages arising from his characteristics, his background, religion, and his citizenship. During the campaign, one of the dominant rumors was that Obama was Muslim. His middle name (Hussein) started being emphasized in election campaigns, media reports, analyses, and commentaries. There was also a lot of emphasis on the secular Muslim school that Obama attended, describing it as a “Wahabi” or “Madrassa” school (Pasek & Tahk, 2009). There were also claims that he swore his oath as senator on the Koran (Pasek & Tahk, 2009. Americans who regarded Obama as Muslim considered him a liability, meaning that they may have been inclined to vote for his opponent.

In contrast, Republican candidate John McCain was not as charismatic as Obama. At 72, McCain was much older than the 47 year-old Obama. Age was a significant factor because it impacted on the extent to which his campaign was energized. Obama also used his age to create a positive impression about his close touch with virtually all social groups via the social media. The option of using the social media in the campaign might have sounded less appealing and unattractive to the much-older McCain.

Nevertheless, several advantages arose from the personality and characteristics of John McCain. His reputation as a Vietnam War veteran had a positive impact on his campaign. Moreover, many people believed that it would be difficult for the inexperienced Obama to defeat McCain, who was a highly experienced politician. During McCain’s time in the Senate, most of the bills he cosponsored focused on immigration, campaign finance reform, gambling, prevention of tax increases, and torture. In contrast, Obama focused mainly on lobbying reform, alternative energy, care for veterans, and nuclear terrorism.

Campaign funding and strategy

The issue of campaign funding also had far-reaching implications on election outcomes in 2008. In fact, it was one of the defining moments of not just the election but the future of public financing for presidential candidates. The objective of introducing the fund was to limit spending during presidential election campaigns. Another objective was to make it increase the level of participation in the presidential election by candidates. Obama’s decision to forego public financing all but marked the end of public financing. Obama managed to raise a whopping $745 million through private contributions (Niemi & Weisberg, 2012).

Prior to this decision by Obama, candidates had already established a trend of foregoing public financing since the election of the year 2000. Nevertheless, it is Obama’s record-breaking achievement in private financing that set a precedent for future general elections. In 2008, the amount that a presidential candidate could obtain under public financing was $128 million, which seems very small compared to Obama’s private-funding achievement (Niemi & Weisberg, 2012).

In the meantime, those who supported public financing continued to argue that it was necessary in the war against corruption (Flanigan & Zingale 1991). However, it is worthwhile to note that in today’s campaign atmosphere, complete with modern technology and campaign finance laws, provides for checks and balances that did not exist in the Watergate era of the 1970s when the idea of public financing was introduced (Jacobson, 2001).

The Obama private fundraising machinery greatly contributed to the use of the term “a billion-dollar election” in reference to the 2008 presidential election. On the other hand, as Election Day drew closer, McCain lagged far behind Obama with regard to campaign funding. However, his contributions suddenly got a major boost when McCain chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. For Obama, the defining moment came in September 2008 when the campaign team got private donations amounting to $9 million in a single night (Niemi & Weisberg, 2012). The two fundraising events that generated this amount were held in Beverly Hills and were attended by many celebrities.


The election outcome: Factors that turned the tide

When the outcome of the election was finally announced, one of the most remarkable moments in the history of the US was unveiled. Barack Obama, a son of a black Kenyan father and a white mother from the state of Kansas was declared the forty fourth president of the US. The junior Illinois senator had become the first African-American president of the US. One of the factors that turned the election tide in his favor was his excellent performance during the first presidential debate a few weeks before the election. During this debate, the confident manner in which the young presidential candidate promised to bring about major changes at both the domestic level and in the country’s foreign policy endeared him to many people across the US.


Several conclusions can be derived from this discussion. The first one is that critical issues greatly influence electoral behavior in the US. In the case of 2008, two of the most important issues included the economy and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama provided the best and most convincing solution to these issues. Americans were looking for real change; they desperately wanted to deviate from the course of war and economic recession. He promised to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan and this endeared him to the majority of Americans.

Moreover, political parties greatly influenced the race. The Democratic Party continued with its trend of dominance in Congress that had emerged during the 2004 election. Additionally, the character of Obama contributed to his victory; he was young, energetic, ambitious, intelligent, and charismatic. His ability to mobilize resources enabled him raise record-breaking campaign funds through private donations.


Flanigan, W. & Zingale, N. (1991). Political behavior of the American electorate (12th edition). New York: Free Press.

Jacobson, G. (2001). The Politics of Congressional Elections. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Niemi, R. & Weisberg, H. (Eds.) (2012). Controversies in voting behavior. Washington, D.C.: Sage Publications.

Pasek, J. & Tahk, A. (2009). Determinants of turnout and candidate choice in the 2008 U.S. presidential election illuminating the impact of racial prejudice and other considerations. Public Opinion Quarterly, 73(5), 943–994.

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