When Wilfredo De Jesus learned that Sen. Barack Obama seized enough electoral votes to become the nation's first African-American president, the Hispanic minister was standing a few feet from the podium where Obama greeted an estimated 240,000 jubilant supporters in Chicago's Grant Park on an unseasonably warm election night. "It was surreal," De Jesus told WORLD.
The surreal evening marked the end of a grueling two-year battle for both Obama and Sen. John McCain, and the end of a journey for De Jesus: The Assemblies of God pastor served as the sole evangelical on a 15-member Hispanic advisory board to the Obama campaign, and spent months trying to persuade social conservatives to support the Democratic candidate.
Many scoffed: De Jesus said a handful of members from his own denomination sent hate mail. Others charged he couldn't be a Christian and support Obama. De Jesus pushed back: "For any one party to say that they have the moral mantle of this country, they're wrong."
According to early exit polls, most white evangelicals backed McCain. The Republican led Obama 73 percent to 26 percent among the group. (Obama gained 5 points over Democratic Sen. John Kerry's level of evangelical support in 2004.)
McCain lost support among other groups as well: Just 32 percent of Hispanic voters supported the Republican. That's down from 44 percent who backed President George W. Bush in 2004. While exit polls didn't immediately confirm how many Hispanic evangelicals backed McCain, a pre-election survey reported that Hispanic Protestants supported Obama over McCain by a 50 percent to 33 percent margin. (More than 80 percent of poll participants described themselves as born again and/or evangelical.)
Obama's lead among the group is significant: Bush won as many as 63 percent of Hispanic Protestant voters in 2004.
Why the sharp decline this year? Samuel Rodriquez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), offers a two-word explanation: "immigration reform." Rodriguez believes GOP stridency over immigration turned many Hispanics against McCain, even though the senator angered Republicans by supporting comprehensive immigration reform last year.
"It's the proverbial rock and the hard place," said Rodriguez. "We like John McCain. We don't like his party."
Hispanic support for Obama helped propel the Democrat to victory in at least four states that supported Bush in 2004: Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico. Rodriguez thinks the Republican Party-and white evangelicals-could have done more to reach out to Hispanics by embracing "a compassionate, non-amnesty approach to immigration reform."
"The coalition of white, brown, and black evangelicals-that would have been very powerful in engaging and mobilizing evangelical citizens for McCain," he said. "But that sort of coalition never emerged."
For Obama, turning red states blue helped deliver a substantial electoral victory in an election with record-breaking voter turnout: The Democrat won 364 electoral votes, while McCain carried 162. (Missouri remained too close to call immediately after the election.)
McCain's early concession speech gave way to all-night parties for Obama supporters in places like Washington, D.C., St. Louis, New York City, and Chicago.
In Washington, D.C., an overwhelmingly Democratic district, pubs and restaurants brimmed with revelers, while drummers converged on 14th Street and men ran through the streets with their shirts off, giving high-fives to strangers and banging pots and pans. (At the nearby Capitol Hilton, where the Republican National Committee held an election-watching event, many dejected McCain backers trickled out before networks officially announced the results. Some retreated outside to smoke on sidewalks before climbing into cabs.)
At a St. Louis victory party hosted by two R&B radio stations, the mostly black crowd erupted into cheers when McCain conceded and said: "This is a historic election, and I recognize the significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight."
In New York City, the celebrations turned less poignant in some corners: The Obama Girls of Comedy troupe entertained Obama supporters in Greenwich Village with crude jokes about McCain and his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin. Patrons hunched over dimly lit tables at the Le Poisson Rouge bar, eating "Palin Pigs-In-A-Blanket."
In Chicago's Grant Park, where Obama held a victory party, voters wept openly and strangers embraced at news of Obama's win. A subdued Obama gave a serious speech about the significance of his victory, declaring that "change has come to America." He offered a caveat to voters with high expectations: "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there."
The president-elect also offered a promise to voters who didn't support him: "For those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I will be your president, too."
Nearly 2,000 miles away, that wasn't a promise some voters wanted to hear. At the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, Ariz., McCain supporters brushed away tears as the Republican candidate congratulated Obama and encouraged his supporters to offer the Democrat "good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together."
Surrounded by his family and a teary-eyed Palin, McCain told supporters: "We fought-we fought as hard as we could. And though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours."
Even as McCain conceded failure, political observers noted that his competitive race was remarkable considering the political environment. Saddled with an economic crisis blamed largely on his party, and relentlessly connected with a highly unpopular president by his foes, McCain still managed to win 46 percent of the popular vote.
Only a few weeks earlier, the presidential race remained neck-and-neck, with McCain gaining ground after a successful GOP convention and a popular vice presidential pick. But it was a September surprise that ultimately unhinged the senator's campaign: When Wall Street collapsed, so did McCain's focus. After he briefly called off his campaign, threatened to cancel the first presidential debate, and returned to Washington to help with an unpopular bailout package, voters questioned McCain's leadership, and the candidate never recovered.
Meanwhile, McCain faced an overwhelming Obama fundraising machine: While McCain accepted public financing and was limited to spending $84 million during the general election, Obama declined public funds and raised a record-breaking $640 million. National and state Democratic parties also outstripped Republican spending, hiring five to 10 times more paid staff than Republicans in swing states, and dominating grassroots efforts once the domain of the GOP.
Conservatives waiting for an 11th-hour intervention like the Swift Boat television ads that damaged Sen. John Kerry's presidential bid in 2004 were disappointed: Chris LaCivita, who developed the Swift Boat campaign for a political action committee four years ago, told Politico that when it came to developing a similar campaign against Obama: "Donors just weren't willing to give the money."
One place McCain's popularity grew through Election Day was with a group that once represented one of his biggest challenges: evangelical voters. Late last year McCain trailed Republican hopefuls Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney among evangelicals, registering only 13 percent of their support.
Shortly before he won the Republican nomination in March, only 25 percent of evangelicals supported McCain. By late March that support rose to 51 percent, and it reached over 70 percent after McCain's choice of Palin as his running mate in August. The Alaska governor delighted religious conservatives, solidified the conservative base, and left some wondering if the McCain camp should have emphasized Palin more during the campaign, despite a barrage of negative coverage by big media outlets (see sidebar).
Hispanic evangelicals like De Jesus and Rodriguez were disappointed that McCain didn't emphasize immigration reform and noted the senator didn't mention the issue in his convention speech. Still, the two pastors-who both serve with the NHCLC-came to different conclusions about the election: De Jesus supported Obama, Rodriguez did not.
Rodriguez said Obama's positions on social issues served as "firewalls" that kept him from supporting the candidate. "I find it difficult to reconcile evangelicalism and a biblical worldview with any candidate that supports abortion on demand," Rodriguez said of Obama. "As an evangelical, as a Christian, as a minister, it's impossible for me to reconcile that."
But Rodriguez said he knew several conservative, Hispanic ministers-like De Jesus-who supported Obama. De Jesus, pastor of New Life Covenant Ministries, a 4,500-member Assemblies of God church in Chicago, said he told Obama that he is "very pro-life and very pro-marriage." "But there are other issues on our plate," he says. He believes Obama would support an immigration plan to give illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship without providing blanket amnesty, an issue De Jesus says has a moral dimension many people ignore.
As Republicans lose conservative Hispanic voters to the Democratic Party, Rodriguez says rebuilding a coalition between Hispanic evangelicals and white evangelicals is possible: "White evangelicals need to reach out and embrace a compassionate, comprehensive, non-amnesty immigration reform policy that reconciles Leviticus 19 and Romans 13" (biblical passages that emphasize compassion for strangers and respect for the law).
Evangelicals looking to build coalitions should also look to another minority group that played a major role in this year's elections: black voters, 95 percent of whom favored Obama. Black voters also favored a socially conservative cause that Obama opposes.
Voters in Arizona, California, and Florida passed ballot measures to ban gay marriage in their states. Obama said he opposes such measures, but a significant bloc of his supporters disagreed: A Florida poll reported that 65 percent of black voters said they would vote for the ban. In California, the support was even higher: Exit polls showed 70 percent of black voters supported the measure. A majority of Latino voters also supported it, while white support was split.
Opponents of the ban appealed to black voters to oppose the measure, and framed the initiatives as a civil-rights issue. Ron Buckmire of the Barbara Jordan/Bayard Rustin Coalition, a homosexual advocacy group in Los Angeles, told The New York Times: "We're saying, 'Gay people are black people and black people are gay. And if you are voting conservative on an anti-gay ballot measure, you are hurting the gay community.'"
Conservative groups, arguing the opposite, poured millions of dollars into the California campaign. The conservative Florida Family Policy Council recruited black pastors to support the Florida measure. Sharon Austin, an associate professor at the University of Florida, told the Florida Times-Union that civil-rights comparisons don't always resonate with blacks: "A lot of people resent that comparison because they don't think it's the same."
Anthony Bradley, an assistant professor of apologetics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis (and a WORLD correspondent), says his fellow African-Americans often have a social conservatism that comes from the black church influence. But while blacks may support a ballot measure for something like traditional marriage, Bradley says that doesn't usually translate into political activism for conservative candidates.
Bradley says African-Americans expect pastors to address moral issues and politicians to address political issues: "In the black church there's never been a sense that we need to find a political solution to a moral or social problem."
White evangelicals seeking to build coalitions with black evangelicals need to begin with that understanding, he says, and make a case for why issues like abortion and marriage matter politically as well as socially. White evangelical leaders should also include more black leaders in the discussion, Bradley says: "This will challenge more black pastors to rethink their positions."
As Republicans and conservatives begin to rethink strategy in the light of an Obama victory, Rodriguez says reaching out to other groups is key: "You have to broaden the tent-not compromise our values, but put some color into the evangelical movement. If not, it's going to be a rough road ahead."
-with reporting by Emily Belz in Washington and Alisa Harris in New York
RALEIGH, N.C.-Seven hours before Gov. Sarah Palin took the stage for a pre-election event at the Exposition Center in Raleigh, N.C., Diane Byrd was already in line. Dressed in a full-length Uncle Sam suit, and covered with McCain-Palin buttons, Byrd explained why she waited all day to see the vice presidential candidate: "She's brought an enthusiasm back to the Republican Party that has been gone since Reagan. And no matter how this election turns out, that won't go away."
Four days later, the Alaska governor returned to her home state after conceding defeat with Sen. John McCain. But enthusiasm for the Republican was still fresh: Scores of supporters greeted Palin at the Anchorage airport with chants of "2012!" When reporters on the icy tarmac asked the governor if she would consider a run for the presidency in four years, Palin demurred: "We'll see what happens then."
Darrell Ellison already hopes Palin will run: "I'd love to see her in the White House." The factory worker from Raleigh said he didn't plan to vote for McCain until he put Palin on the ticket. "She's real, and she's a conservative," Ellison said at the North Carolina rally. "She's Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher combined."
Women supporting Palin expressed a personal affinity with the governor: Lulane Chasteen, a special-needs teacher from Raleigh, said: "She says the things I want to say." Joann Landry, a native Alaskan, said: "When people see Sarah, they understand me." Sharon Bogler, a mother of two from Concord, N.C., wore a "Palin-Rice: 2012" T-shirt and said: "She's every woman who has a job and kids and manages a budget. Every woman here is Sarah Palin. I'm Sarah Palin."
That kind of enthusiasm met Palin at other events, despite downplayed media coverage: At Elon University near Greensboro, N.C., local police estimated Palin drew a crowd of 15,000. The local paper reported 2,000 at the event. On a trip to The Villages, a retirement community north of Orlando, Fox News reported Palin drew 60,000 people, but the event garnered scant national attention.
At the Raleigh event, fire marshals estimated the crowd at 7,000, with thousands left waiting outside when the Exposition Center was full. The local paper reported 5,000 at the event, and didn't mention the snaking line outside after the doors closed.
While media outlets alternately ignored and scorned Palin, some conservatives derided the governor as well: Conservative columnists for National Review, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post questioned McCain's judgment in picking Palin. CNN reported that McCain campaign aides anonymously complained about Palin as well.
The coverage frustrated Landry, the native Alaskan at the North Carolina rally. Landry blasted the media, but also criticized the McCain campaign for not using Palin more aggressively to attract conservative crowds hungry for her blue-collar message of lower taxes and smaller government.
It's that message-combined with social conservatism-that may make Palin a player in the GOP future, according to Bill Whalen at the Hoover Institution. "Conservatives are looking for Mr. Right," Whalen told the Associated Press. "And maybe Mr. Right turns out to be Ms. Right."
Dave Woodard, a GOP analyst and political science professor at Clemson University, told WORLD that Palin would need to cultivate a deeper understanding of a broader range of policy issues to mount a serious bid for the top spot on the ticket in 2012. And she must find a way to reach moderates and independents that helped sway the election for Obama.
Pollster Frank Luntz agreed, telling The Wall Street Journal: "She's a star among conservatives, but the crucial independent voter has a different perspective, and the lesson for the GOP is if you lose the center, you lose America."
Either way, Joseph Matthews, a UPS worker from Cary, N.C., said he's already sold on Palin. When asked about the governor's political future, a wide grin spread across his bearded face: "I'd vote for her for president."