Key questions from the presidential campaign

WASHINGTON — Iowa gave the first sign that the American political landscape had changed.

Democrats in an overwhelmingly white state, many from small towns and farms, said a black man from Chicago was the best choice for president — and by a convincing margin.

Sen. Barack Obama went on to build a broader coalition than any previous black candidate, winning the Democratic nomination on an agenda of change. Sen. John McCain emerged as the GOP nominee, despite a history of breaking from Republican beliefs. He, too, promised change from the nation’s current course.

On Tuesday, as results from the presidential election roll in, so will clues to what kind of change the nation wants, and to how much it has changed in the past four years.

Who wins, and where, will give color to the nation’s feelings on race, the role of government and the hold of partisanship on the public dialogue. Here are four big questions arising from the 2008 presidential campaign:

Has America’s racial divide narrowed?

Watch Obama on television, and he will often be framed by flags and furnishings reminiscent of the Oval Office. During his overseas trip this summer, Obama enjoyed warm banter with the likes of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the two men standing at twin lecterns beneath a crystal chandelier.

Americans have watched Obama act presidential, and he has worked hard to make them comfortable with the idea of a black man — and a relative newcomer to the national scene — as the nation’s leader.

If voters give him the job, it will cap years of progress in race relations. Prejudice and inequality remain, but a growing black middle class has put more white Americans in contact with blacks, particularly in the workplace. In turn, racial attitudes have softened.

Still, Americans have never seen an African-American cast so forcefully as a potential president. By standing as an equal in debates with McCain, by presenting television ads that show white people listening intently to his words, has Obama created a more colorblind nation?

“Fifteen years ago, it would have been inconceivable for many people to think about a black person as president of the United States. It required this demographic change of younger people with more liberal attitudes coming to the fore,” said Reynolds Farley, a University of Michigan sociologist who studies interactions between the races.

Facing a more receptive public, Obama benefited further by creating an “aura of the presidency” in his public images, which helped overcome long-held negative stereotypes some whites still hold of blacks, Farley said.

Public opinion surveys suggest that racial attitudes have in fact changed during the campaign. Growing numbers of people believe that blacks and whites have an equal chance of “getting ahead in today’s society,” a New York Times/CBS News poll found last week.

About 64 percent of respondents saw equal opportunity in America, up 13 percentage points from July. Among blacks, the pollsters also found a 13-point jump in those who saw equal opportunity, to 43 percent today. Fewer Americans now say that the people they know would decline to vote for a black candidate.

Looking back, it is hard to remember how high the hurdles were for a black presidential candidate.

He won in Iowa, where only 2.3 percent of voters are black, and in other overwhelmingly white states, such as Wisconsin. But later, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to expose a weakness in Obama’s appeal, as millions of whites flocked to her.

Still, Obama seems to have successfully presented himself as different than some nationally known black leaders of the past — not angry, not fiery. And Americans have increasingly come to see him as someone like themselves.

About 55 percent said that Obama has values and a background they can identify with — about the same as for McCain, an October survey for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found. For Obama, that was a 10 point gain from April.

On Tuesday, that will be one benchmark for studying whether racial attitudes have changed.

Is America still divided into red and blue?

Turn on the radio in Joplin, Mo., and you might hear the ominous sounds of police sirens as a narrator warns that Obama will take away your guns, robbing you of the right to defend yourself. Visit a church in Florida, and you may find literature promoting a measure to ban gay marriage.

The familiar culture wars are raging. But unlike the 2004 campaign, when questions of God, guns and gay marriage drove much of the electorate, the weight of the conversation this year has consisted of appeals to the political center.

Obama and McCain have wound their way to similar stances on Iraq, global warming and stem-cell research. Both promise to cut taxes. Both call for a more collegial tone in Washington. In fact, when the campaigns have returned to the 2004-style language of division, they have been rebuked.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin apologized for describing small towns as “pro-America areas of this great nation” — a comment widely read as saying other areas are unpatriotic. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, in traditionally conservative North Carolina, may have lost ground after labeling her opponent as “godless.”

“This has been an election about the middle,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The reason is simple: Although neither party had an advantage four years ago, President Bush’s unpopularity has helped drive more people to call themselves Democrats. That makes the moderate, swing voters all the more crucial. Republicans can’t win without them, and Democrats can’t afford to lose them.

As the results come in, watch areas like the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, or Florida’s Tampa Bay — regions full of moderates who went for Bush.

If these voters side with McCain, then perhaps America has decided to live again in red and blue. But if they go for Obama, then purple may be the more appropriate color for a country asking to be governed from the center.

Do Americans want more from government?

On an August night, millions tuned in to watch Obama unfurl an expansive view of government: one that would safeguard health, subsidize alternative fuels, invest in early education and more. “Now is not the time for small plans,” Obama proclaimed as he accepted his party’s nomination.

One week later, McCain had a similar opportunity to lay out his vision. He described a smaller government that puts a premium on self-reliance. “We believe in low taxes, spending discipline and open markets … government that doesn’t make your choices for you,” he said after his party nominated him.

In those contrasting views, the election offers voters a chance to decide what they want from government.

More than anything, surveys say, they want competence, after living through a Bush administration that even many Republicans say bungled the war in Iraq, the response to Hurricane Katrina and the economy. “I voted for Bush, and I can’t believe it,” said Jerry Mills, a welder in Ohio who fears he will lose his home to foreclosure. “I don’t want to admit to it. I’m not happy with where he put us.”

Said former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich, “This is a performance election, not an ideological election.”

But a rejection of Bush may not amount to a mandate for more government. In a September Gallup poll before the financial crisis took hold, 53 percent said the government was doing too much that should be left to individuals and businesses. By comparison, 4 percent said the government should do more to solve the country’s problems.

That may change with the economic crisis — but not indefinitely.

“It seems clear that voters are open to a more active government role, both from a regulatory perspective and from a problem-solving perspective,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. “That doesn’t mean Americans have lost their skepticism about the ability of government to do things well or efficiently.”

Has the American electorate changed?

When Californians voted in this year’s Democratic primary, about 30 percent of the ballots were cast by Latinos — a huge jump from 7 percent in 2000. In the Iowa caucuses in January, turnout by young voters tripled over 2004. And when North Carolina opened its early voting process, black voters lined up in greater numbers than ever before.

Those are signs that the U.S. electorate is changing to one that is more racially diverse, younger — and possibly more friendly to Democrats.

The under-30 set, a huge cohort, has been trending Democratic, and analysts say that the political allegiances young people form in their earliest voting experiences typically stick throughout their lives.

Moreover, Obama has made an effort to register younger voters. That could pay political dividends for years to come — if young voters actually go to the polls. While the percentage of under-30s who voted rose between 2000 and 2004, the Gallup poll has not seen signs that it will surge higher this year.

Latinos, a growing share of the electorate, have moved away from the Republican Party after some GOP leaders adopted a strident tone on illegal immigration. Bush won 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004. A recent survey showed McCain drawing only 23 percent.

That decline has helped put some southwestern states, such as New Mexico and Colorado, in play, as well as Florida.

A key question is whether the Democratic opportunity is a short-lived product of Obama’s campaign and Bush’s unpopularity, or whether Obama, if he is elected, is positioned to build a durable coalition.

Curtis Gans, of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, argues that the answer does not lie in who votes this year. “It depends on how Obama performs in office” if elected, he said. “What we’ve got in 2008 is a riled up electorate and a worshipful youth.”

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