By: Heather Larsen-Price
Just a glimpse of the faces in the crowd at Grant Park during Barack Obama’s acceptance
speech on Nov. 4 was enough to communicate the historical significance of the 2008
presidential election. It is truly amazing to sit back and think about how far this
nation has come.
It is evident that many Memphians are deeply moved by the significance of this election
in light of the history of this city and its role in the Civil Rights Movement.
We have known that this election was going to be historic since March 4. On that day
John McCain surpassed the number of delegates that he needed to claim the GOP nomination.
Meanwhile, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s primary campaign was revived by wins in Ohio and
Texas. In this situation, Americans had three historic choices at their fingertips:
the first female president, the first African-American president or the oldest president
ever elected. These historic options inspired a lot of citizens. And, people are more
likely to participate politically when they think that their votes will count —not
just in terms of closeness, and the Democratic primary race was certainly close —
but in terms of choices.
The recent election in which Obama was elected president is historical for
many reasons, a U of M professor says.
There is plenty of evidence that Americans were truly inspired by this presidential
race, and I believe this evidence demonstrates that this election was historic in
more than one respect. Voter registration rates went through the roof across the country
in the first few months of 2008. Over 3.5 million new voters registered in the first
three months of the year.This includes increases for important groups such as women,
blacks and young people. To put this into perspective, nearly one in 65 adult Americans
registered to vote in just the first three months of 2008. Things were certainly looking
up for democracy and political participation in America!
Americans continued to be part of this process in record numbers when both parties
held their conventions in late summer.The convention speeches of both John McCain
and Barack Obama were watched by more than 38 million viewers, which set new records
for convention viewership. To put convention viewership into perspective, the audiences
for the Obama and McCain speeches were bigger than the audiences this year for the
Academy Awards, the finale of “American Idol” and the Olympics opening ceremony in
Voters once again proved they were interested in politics when Sarah Palin and Joe
Biden faced off in the vice presidential debate in St. Louis on Oct. 2. The viewership
for this debate, at 69.9 million viewers, tied for the second highest viewership in
history for any debate. With registration rates on the rise and citizens seemingly
so in tune to the 2008 presidential race, one nagging question remained as we rounded
the corner toward Nov. 4: Were citizens still inspired and ready to go out and vote
for their candidate?
The final voter turnout tally is not likely to be released until early December. But,
the percentage of registered voters casting ballots this year is projected at 60.7
to 61.7 percent. American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate
reports that Americans did set a record for number of votes cast in this presidential
election but failed to make history with the percentage of voter turnout. The percentage
was not as high as expected, according to the Center, because Republicans stayed away
from the polls. However, the turnout rate for 2008 is expected to be the same or one
percentage point higher than it was in 2004.
So maybe we didn’t quite reach historic voter turnout rates, but the American public
was certainly engaged in the 2008 presidential election. Citizens were inspired by
their options and remained interested in the election throughout the process. People
were talking about the candidates and the issues, and that certainly makes for a healthier
democracy. In the end, the outcome of Nov. 4— the election of Barack Obama as the
nation’s first black president — is certainly inspirational for Americans and the
rest of the world.
Heather A. Larsen-Price has been with the U of M’s Department of Political Science
in the College of Arts and Sciences since 2006 after receiving her PhD from the University
of Washington the same year. She was often quoted by local and national media about
the recent presidential election. Her broad research interests include American political
institutions, public policy processes, as well as decision-making and information
processing.Her area of specialization is presidency studies. Larsen-Price teaches
courses in American government, public policy and political methodology. Her research
has been published in American Political Science Review.