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America spoke

Campaign 2008 | The end of a two-year campaign and the election of the nation's first African-American president marks for Democrats a historic milestone and for Republicans a time to begin again. Without color in the evangelical movement, "it's going to be a rough road ahead"

Issue: "Obama," Nov. 15, 2008

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."

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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."

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