A new America

Barack Obama won the US election thanks to young people, African-Americans, Hispanics... and the rich?

Last Tuesday’s election (ed: was it only last week?) witnessed a realignment of the American electorate, which, if it endures, could produce substantial changes in the country’s politics and policies over coming decades.

Barack Obama captured the White House on the strength of a substantial electoral shift toward the Democratic Party, itself a indicator of changing priorities among the US public. Overall, 39% of voters were Democrats while 32% were Republicans – a dramatic shift from 2004 when the electorate was evenly divided. Also important was Obama’s command of a number of key groups in the middle of the electorate. While self-identified “moderates” have favored the Democratic candidate in each of the past five elections, Obama gained the support of more voters in the ideological "middle" than did either John Kerry or Al Gore before him.

Obama won at least half the votes of independents (52% vs. 49% for Kerry), suburban voters (50% vs. 47% for Kerry), Catholics (54% vs. 47% for Kerry), and other key swing groups in the electorate.

As has been widely noted, the overwhelming backing of younger voters was a critical factor in Obama's victory. An analysis of National Election Pool exit polls finds that Obama drew two-thirds (66%) of the vote among those younger than age 30. This age group was Kerry's strongest four years ago, but he drew a much narrower 54% majority.

Obama's expanded support did not extend to all age groups, however. In particular, McCain won the support of voters age 65 and older by a 53%-to-45% margin, slightly larger than Bush's 52%-to-47% margin four years ago. Notably, Al Gore narrowly won this age group in 2000.

Obama won a huge majority among those with low or moderate annual incomes (60% of those making less than $50,000 a year). Yet he also made striking gains among the most affluent voters: more than half (52%) of those with annual incomes of $200,000 or more favored Obama while 46% supported McCain. Four years ago, Kerry won just 35% of these high-income voters.

Obama struggled to win Hispanic votes during Democratic primaries in California and other states, but on Tuesday he drew two-thirds (66%) of the Hispanic vote, a 13-point improvement over Kerry in 2004. Nationally, all Latino demographic sub-groups voted for Obama by heavy margins with Latino youth, like all youth nationwide, favoring Obama over McCain by a lopsided 76% to 19%.

Obama also gained seven points among African American voters (95% vs. 88% for Kerry), and managed to slightly improve on Kerry's share of the white vote (43% vs. 41% for Kerry).

Among white voters, however, only those under age 30 or with post-graduate degrees gave a majority of their votes to the president-elect. And the exit poll also revealed a sizable gap in support for Obama between whites in the South and those living in other parts of the country. Just 31% of southern whites voted for Obama, while he garnered the support of about half of white voters living in other regions.

Obama made a concerted effort to reach out to people of faith during the 2008 presidential campaign, and this outreach may have paid off on Election Day. Among nearly every religious group, the Democratic candidate received equal or higher levels of support compared with the 2004 Democratic nominee, John Kerry. Still, a sizeable gap persists between the support Obama received from white evangelical Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated, and between those who attend religious services regularly and those who attend less often.

Economy Was Dominant Issue

As expected, the economy dominated the US voters' agenda this year. Economic and personal financial concerns consistently cut in Obama's favor. Among those who said they are very worried about economic conditions, 59% voted for Obama. One-in-three voters said they are very worried about being able to afford the health care services they need, and these voters backed Obama by a 65%-to-32% margin.

The tax issue was the centre-piece of McCain's closing argument: He argued that Obama would raise taxes and redistribute the wealth. But most voters actually thought both candidates would raise their taxes: 71% said Obama would do so, while 61% said McCain would do so.

Despite Obama's strong personal appeal, his supporters overwhelmingly say they favored him based on his issue positions (68%), not his leadership and personal qualities (30%). By contrast, McCain's supporters were divided, with 49% saying his leadership and personal qualities mattered most to them, rather than his positions on the issues (48%).

Overall, more voters said they felt Obama has the right judgment to make a good president (57%), as opposed to John McCain (49%). A 57%-majority also said Obama is in touch with people like them, while just 39% said this about McCain. Even his experience did not provide McCain a great advantage: while 59% said McCain has the right experience to be president, 51% said the same about Obama.

And while voters who rated terrorism as the top national issue -- just 9% of the electorate -- favored McCain by greater than six-to-one, terrorism has faded in importance since 2004. In addition, Obama ran nearly even with McCain among the 70% of voters who said they are worried about another terrorist attack on the United States

While Obama's supporters expressed concern about the impact of his race on the election, the exit poll suggests that, if anything, the race factor favored Obama. Only a small share of white voters (7%) said that race was important to their vote, and they voted overwhelmingly for McCain (66% to 33%). At the same time, Obama's race helped to bring large numbers of new African American voters to the polls. Blacks made up a larger share of the electorate in 2008 (13%) than they did in 2004 (11%) or 2000 (10%), and they supported Obama at higher rates than they did either Kerry or Gore.

Nearly two-thirds of voters (64%) said McCain attacked Obama unfairly during the campaign, but these attacks evidently did not raise widespread concerns about Obama ascending to the nation's highest office. Overall, only 24% of voters said the idea of Obama winning "scared" them, while a slightly larger number, 28%, said the same about the idea of McCain winning.

Looking forward, most voters are upbeat about an Obama presidency. A majority of voters (54%) described themselves as either "excited" or "optimistic" about the possibility of Obama serving as president. (Leaving the voting booth, twice as many Obama backers (56%) as McCain backers (28%) said they were excited about the prospect of their candidate winning.)

Find more overall exit poll analysis at Pew Research's look inside the Obama victory, further analysis of the religious vote here, and additional detail on the Hispanic vote here.