The Election of 2008: An Introduction

History In the Making

What is so special about the election of 2008? Why should teachers of Civics and History use it to teach young Americans about elections and the democratic process? The election process in America can seem pretty confusing with its primaries, caucuses, the electoral college, and its returns and results. It is a process rooted in the American Constitution but that has also experienced an evolution along the lines of geography, race, class, and age. Before this election played itself out in the way that it did, elections still seemed pretty boring to young people. American youth can be pretty apathetic about politics. They can be so apathetic they don't even know what the word "apathy" means! Not anymore. 

A Crowded Field

The 2008 election cycle was the first one in collective memory where an incumbent president or vice president was not running for the office of chief executive. When the two years of campaigning started late in 2006 and early in 2007, there were eight major Democratic candidates and ten Republicans. From our prospective in time at the start of the race, each of these contenders had about the same chance of breaking free of the pack to become their party's nominee. As we look back on the race from its finish line, we can see that the outcome was bigger than we expected. The rapid rise of Barack Obama, his near-flawless campaign, and his decisive victory over Republican nominee John McCain in November of 2008 was the basis for a seismic political shift in American politics at home and position among the nations of the world.

The Role of Technology in Modern Democracy

The inauguration of Barack Obama on January 20, 2009 was the culmination of the democratic process that is essential in American politics, but there are other reasons that made the election of 2008 remarkable. Senator Obama marshaled the power and resources of the Internet to reach to a huge, previously untouched voting block -- American youth. The "You Tube" generation seemed more in tune with their computers and cell phones than the traditional media of television, radio, and newspapers. He used communication and information technology in a way that brought his message of change to the people that he needed to tip the scales in his favor. Indeed, the 18 to 35 year-old voting block also is a major stakeholding block of the electorate. As they age, they will be looking to government to fix seemingly overwhelming problems that will effect them directly, namely, social security, the federal deficit, and the looming economic recession that changed the course of the election in October of 2008.

The Clinton Factor

In order to be the front runner of his party leading up to the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Obama had to defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady and junior senator from New York. Clinton was perceived early on as the front runner, but as the primaries progressed, Obama took the lead in delegates to the convention, and ultimately, she conceded and threw her support behind Obama, uniting the party and forming a coalition of support that John McCain could not overcome. The process of building that coalition between blacks and liberal whites on one side of the party and blue-collar workers and conservative, rural "Reagan Democrats" on the other, was an accomplishment that Barack Obama had practiced for throughout his political career. This time, it was a pathway that led him to the Oval Office.

Not only was Clinton a formidable political opponent, she was the first woman candidate to make a serious run for a major elective national office. There have been others before her: Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, 1984 vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro -- all placed their name in contention but never made it past the initial phase of the election cycle. Clinton had the support of the base of the Democratic Party. Many of her supporters came from the ranks of those who had supported her husband's vice president during the failed 2000 campaign, where Al Gore garnered a majority of the nation's popular votes but could not muster a majority of votes in the electoral college, thereby losing to Governor George Bush by 4 votes. Undoubtedly, Clinton symbolized an opportunity for women to break the "glass ceiling" in politics. If she could bring together all the disparate forces of the Democratic Party, she could break through into the presidency. Oddly, the line of presidents would read "Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton" in almost a tug of war of American political history. Her familiarity with the White House might have been one reason the American voters opted for a fuller level of change in Barack Obama.

The Republican Ticket

John McCain co-opted the message of change sent out by his opponent by portraying himself as a Republican break from the Bush policies of "corruption and mismanagement" at the federal level. He chose to demonstrate his reputation as a maverick by choosing a running mate largely unknown to the American people -- Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.  In the hopes of appealing to the right-wing of the Republican Party, he selected her over defeated rivals such as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney or actor and US senator Fred Thompson. Palin also represented the possibility of appealing to those women who supported Clinton but who could not accept the more liberal, and for some the African-American, Obama. It was a serious Gamble for McCain, who up until his selection of Palin could criticize Obama for not being experienced in the area of his strength, foreign policy. McCain's military experience, especially the five years he spent as a POW in North Viet Nam's notorious Hanoi Hilton prison, gave him the edge against both Clinton and Obama in the early months of the campaign. With the newcomer Palin on the ticket, "the experience argument" could no longer be made plausibly. McCain was running as the oldest presidential candidate ever at 72. Should something happen to him during his four years in office, it would be Vice President Sarah Palin who would have to step into the Oval Office as president. While she was the only candidate with executive experience as a two-year Governor of Alaska, she was clearly short on foreign policy experience or even in experience on governance on the federal level.

Palin did have a positive effect on the Republican side of the political equation. Her positions on traditional Republican issues such as gun control and abortion matched those of many rural and conservative Americans. She would pull over many conservatives that John McCain had alienated during the 2000 presidential race and as a result of his moderate voting record in the Senate. Palin was also placed in the position of "attack dog" where she could openly criticize her Democratic opponent while her running mate could stay safely above the fray. Moreover, her down-home charm and beauty-pageant good looks kept her in the media spotlight. She was able to stand up as a working mom who cared for her family, including an infant son with Downs Syndrome, while working hard for the people of Alaska in the state's Governor's mansion.

The Impact of the Economy on American Politics

The American people had a clear choice after the economy of the United States, and in turn, the world, took a serious downturn in October of 2008. A "perfect storm" of economic conditions seemed to bring to a close the Bush years that were already marked by an approaching recession and seven years of war on two fronts. The housing market had become weak because of lending practices that were too relaxed. Home mortgage loans in the "sub-prime" category of the housing market were going unpaid, and major banks had to close or reduce their work force. The amount of credit in the United States dried up as a result, making it more difficult to get home loans, car loans, and student loans. The housing industry, the banking industry, and the automobile industry were all in trouble and asking the government for a handout to shore up their bottom lines. The US Treasury asked Congress for $750 billion to support the banks that were threatened by poor decisions and lending practices that had gone unregulated during the late Clinton and Bush years. Confidence in the American economy receded, and so the stock market took its greatest downturn since the crash of 1987. 

The economic downturn was the "October surprise" Obama needed to gain in the polls and sell his platform as a clean break from the "failed Bush economic policies" of the past eight years. Election Night told the story: Obama took all the states John Kerry won in 2004 along with several other critical "battleground" states such as Ohio and Virginia. The result was a near-landslide in Obama's favor, winning in the electoral college 364 to 174. His victory speech in Chicago's Grant Park eliminated any doubt that Obama was more than just a fleeting sensation. His popularity represented a movement toward renewed liberal politics in America - a swinging of the pendulum away from trickle-down economics and laissez-fair capitalism towards a more regulated and interventionist economic policy on the part of the federal government. But his message appealed to the American electorate on a deeper level, one that symbolized hope, not just for African-Americans, but for all Americans who were hurting and struggling in the economic challenges resulting from what they saw were Bush policies. Moreover, Obama called not for larger government but smarter, more effective government. With that message, he was able to reach across the divides of the American voting public and build the coalition he would need to win.

In the Classroom

Teachers have a tough job when they try to communicate complex political concepts that students often feel do not relate to their world. The election of Barack Obama has captured the imagination of the nation, so a national "teachable moment" has opened up for many classroom teachers in social studies and related disciplines. The purpose of these lessons to help teachers use the print and electronic resources at their command to make the election more real and more important to their students. The goal of these lessons is to present the most exciting election in national memory in a way that raises the level of interest of students and makes teaching fun and rewarding. More importantly, the election of 2008 is a great vehicle for teaching young people about the American political process in a way that helps our democracy grow as the next generation of citizens and voters comes of age.

Lesson Plan: US Government and Civics

Topic: Why Is the Election of 2008 Important?

Objectives: The students will:

1. show how elections in the United States reflect the American political ideals of "popular sovereignty" and "consent of the governed."

2. identify the terms of office for members of the House of Representatives, the US Senate, and the Presidency.

3. identify the major issues facing the American public during the 2008 election cycle.

Opening Activity (Warm-Up): The Roots of American Democracy

A. Place the term "democracy" on the board, overhead, or electronic whiteboard.

B. Have students brainstorm for two or three minutes as many concepts in the form of one or two word phrases what aspects of American society they think illustrates and defines this term. Students may include the terms "voting, elections, rights, constitution, Declaration of Independence, candidates, the President, and Congress." 

C. After the allotted time, discuss the terms the students generated. Cross out those terms not related to democracy. Ask students "what is the difference between direct democracy and representative democracy?" Point out that the nation is too big and has too many competing interests to allow all citizens to be involved in the lawmaking process, so we elect representatives to act on behalf of the voting public. This is why the United States is a republic. Also, point out that in a republic, there are no inherited positions of nobility.

D. Have students read the following sections of the Declaration of independence :

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government,

and Constitution:

From Article I: The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States...

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.

From Amendment 15: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude--

From Amendment 17: The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote.

Discuss the meaning of these excerpts from America's founding documents. Have students relate the democratic process of changing administrations to the section from the Declaration of Independence. Point out the significance of the 15th Amendment when considering the nature of the electorate today in the light of the election of Barack Obama. Discuss other ways in which the American electorate has become more democratic (inclusion of women, 18-20 year olds, elimination of the poll tax, and the inclusion of Washington, DC, immigrants and Native Americans in the voting process) as well as the direct election of US senators.

Main Activity: The Significance of the Election of 2008

A. Distribute the reading that accompanies this lesson and have students read silently or aloud.

B. Have students identify five or more major issues that the candidates had to address in their campaigns.

C. Have students visit the websites of each of the major political parties. Have students create a chart that outlines the positions of each of the major parties for the issues they identified. 

D. Use a current newspaper or news broadcast to identify the actions of the Obama administration since January 20, 2009 as they relate to the key issues that the students identified earlier. Have students assess or evaluate the president's actions to date. Have them answer the question: "Has President Obama kept the promises he made during the campaign?"

Wrap-up Activity: November 4, 2008: Election Day

A. Have students conduct research into what it was like for Americans to learn that they had elected the first African-American president in American history in Barack Obama.

B. Have students work in groups of three or four to develop editorials and articles that describe the importance of this event both in the short term and the long term for America. Then have students submit them to form a newspaper that has a headline generated by the students.

C. Have the class brainstorm and vote on a headline for the day after Election Day 2008.

D. Print and paste student submissions into a newspaper and display the final product.

Assessment: The lesson will be assessed by

1. The quality of student responses in writing and discussion activities.

2. Scores on future tests and quizzes.

Lesson Resources:

Election Central 2008 from
National Archives: Charters of Freedom
Scholastic News Online: Teaching Election 2008
C-SPAN: The Politics Page
Time for Kids: Election Connection 2008


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