American Elections and Campaigns – 2008 to 2012: “Hope” in Politics, “Change” in Technology

With the onset of the 2008 presidential election season, the country was faced with a series of domestic and international crises. After seven years, the combined wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had heavily declined in public support. While the American casualty rates were significantly lower than in previous wars, the financial, social, and political costs were felt far more than before. At home, Hurricane Katrina caused the deaths of over 1,800 people and caused $125 billion in property damage in 2005. It was the most destructive tropical cyclone to have ever hit the United States at the time, and the Bush administration’s response to it was criticized for being ineffective and disorganized. An additional source of national strife was the 2008 financial crisis. Due in part to the predatory lending practices and risk-taking procedures by the country’s major financial institutions – coupled with the burst of the economic housing bubble – there was a sudden surge in unemployment and foreclosures on homes and businesses across the country. This extended to the rest of the world in what was later called the Great Recession, which was the then-most costly global economic downturn since the Great Depression. The incumbent President Bush was often the target of blame for these troubles, and the Republican Party’s 2008 candidate – John McCain – was considered by critics to be a prospective continuation of the same policies. McCain was 72-years-old in August 2008, prompting many critics to highlight his advanced age as a mark against him becoming the next president. While he enjoyed support among many Republican voters because of his military service in the Vietnam War, his verbal gaffs made many others feel that he was out of touch with the needs of the American people in the present. Due to the financial crisis, McCain was also unable to be completely attentive on the campaign trail, since his status as an Arizona Senator frequently had him return to Washington, D.C. for congressional meetings to address the crisis. The lingering concerns of McCain being too old to be president were slightly eased with his selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as the prospective vice president. In spite of her being significantly younger than McCain, Palin was also frequently criticized for not having as much political experience as the other candidates in the 2008 race.

Photograph of the McCains and the Palins campaigning after both candidates’ nominations at the Republican National Convention, 2008. (Rachael Dickson via Flickr)
John McCain and Barack Obama during one of the presidential debates of the 2008 election season. (Associated Press)

Out of the many candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for president, the two major forerunners were New York Senator and former First Lady Hillary Clinton, and Illinois Senator Barack Obama. After several months of campaigning and earning endorsements from other mainstream Democrats, Obama secured the nomination for president in June 2008, selecting Delaware Senator Joe Biden to serve as his running mate. Obama earning the nomination made him the first African American to become the presidential nominee for a major political party in U.S. history. During his subsequent campaign, Obama made conscious efforts to appeal to younger generations of voters. At the age of forty-six, he was the first person from Generation X to run on a major party’s ticket. Standing in contrast to John McCain, Obama described his opponent’s campaign promises as “old” or “old hat,” but notably never directly criticized him as an individual. Framing McCain as a prospective extension of George W. Bush, Obama defined his youthful campaign with phrases such as “Change We Need,” “Yes We Can,” and “Hope.” In keeping with his progressive approach to the Democratic Party, Obama gave extensive focus on his proposal to establish a universal health care system in the United States, as his supporters considered it one of their more pertinent issues to be addressed. The political use of technology was advanced even further in Obama’s campaign, with him being the first presidential candidate to make extensive use of social media networks. Seen frequently with a Blackberry cellphone, Obama’s campaign website not only provided general information about his platform, but also directly called for volunteers in local communities to campaign for his election. As the average American’s use of the Internet and social media surged in the 2000s, Obama’s campaign managed to grow substantial followings on major social platforms. The campaign’s Facebook profile amassed over 2 million followers, over 100,000 on Twitter, and 115,000 subscribers on YouTube with a combined total of 97 million views on the videos themselves. This meshwork of grassroots advocacy and digital networking effectively secured Obama’s relevancy among younger generations of voters, making him appear to be a more relatable and “down-to-earth” candidate compared to his rivals in the 2008 season. These technological advancements also branched into the presidential debates, as one of the debates was simultaneously broadcasted on television and on an Internet livestream by C-SPAN. Election Day of 2008 had a higher voter turnout than in previous years, with over 131 million votes tallied overall. Obama won the election with 365 electoral votes to McCain’s 173. In addition to younger voters turning out in larger droves, there were more African American voters than in previous elections, with over 95% of their votes being in favor of Obama. The strongest centers of support for Obama included the West Coast states, the East Coast, and several Midwestern states. McCain’s strongest support bases were in half of the Midwest as well as the Southern states.

Screenshot of Obama-Biden campaign website, 2008. (Internet Archive via Wayback Machine)
Barack Obama delivering his victory speech on Election Night at Grant Park in Chicago, 2008. (Josh Copeland via Flickr)

The presidential election of 2012 saw the incumbent Barack Obama and Joe Biden face a challenge by Republican challengers Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. While the Democratic Party’s nomination process was near-unanimous for the Obama-Biden ticket, the Republicans debated over who would be the best person to represent the party at the presidential level. After several candidates either withdrew, lost, or were ousted due to scandals, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney proved to be the most popular candidate for the Republican ticket. Selecting Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate, Romney officially accepted the party nomination for president for the 2012 election season. Compared to previous years, the 2012 season has since been measured as the most expensive election cycle in U.S. history. With the combined use of political fundraising by both mainline parties, grassroots campaigning, online support, and the advent of the “independent expenditure-only political action committees” (Super PACs), over $6 billion were spent in the 2012 election. The Obama and Romney campaigns raised $2 billion each, and the Super PACs made up one-fourth of all political funding in the entire year of 2012. While both the Democrats and Republicans made use of Super PACs, the majority of them were designed to support Romney’s campaign. Millions of dollars were spent on advertising campaigns in swing states, criticizing many of Obama’s financial and economic reforms as president. During the debates, the most pertinent issues discussed were the economy, the national debt, health care, and the purpose of the federal government. 

The Obama campaign used a series of economic and military accomplishments to encourage support for their platform. Both the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 were passed in Obama’s first term. These were made specifically to address the aftermath of the Great Recession and the administration’s pursuit for health care reform. In international affairs, the Obama administration heralded the end of the Iraq War in 2011, and the initial withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Another major event that received a positive bipartisan reception was Obama’s approval and leadership of Operation Neptune Spear, which saw the elimination of Osama bin Laden by the U.S. Navy’s Naval Special Warfare Development Group (SEAL Team Six). While these were seen as positive advancements for the country at large, many critics and those skeptical of the Obama administration were concerned that the sweeping changes to health care and economics were oversteps in federal authority. These concerns were most prominently featured by the platforms of Republican candidates in the 2012 election, and were frequently brought up in debates and campaign stops. Obama ultimately won the election with 332 electoral votes to Romney’s 206. Once it was confirmed on the night of the election that Ohio had gone to Obama, Romney personally called Obama to concede his loss. On a larger historical time scale, Obama’s victory in 2012 was the first time since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s re-elections in 1940 and 1944 when a Democratic president won the popular vote and the electoral vote twice in a row. Obama’s second term in office was defined in-part by his increase of U.S. military forces in Iraq and Syria in response to the incursion of ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in 2014, imposing economic sanctions against Russia after its annexation of Crimea that same year, his support for the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage by the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision, and the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2016. Meanwhile, American political campaigning through the remainder of the 2010s and the early 2020s saw a sweeping increase in the use of social media networking by both major political parties, and billions of dollars being raised and spent for campaign advertising by Super PACs. The prospective future of American elections and campaigns has been faced with increased scrutiny in more recent times, most visibly along partisan lines. Nevertheless, the interconnected systems of elections have remained largely functional through the centuries, remaining the same when functioning as intended, and changing to meet the demands of the times, with the fundamental purpose of serving the American people.

The Obamas and the Bidens meeting on stage at Chicago’s McCormick Place after their re-election victories in the 2012 season. (Obama White House Archive via Flickr)
Mitt Romney shaking hands with Barack Obama in the White House after the 2012 presidential election. (Obama White House Archive via Flickr)

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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