Barack Obama and John McCain cast their ballots this morning as voters streamed to the polls across the country to elect the 44th president of the US. Ahead of the election, opinion polls showed Mr Obama leading nationally and in key swing states. Mr McCain was facing an uphill battle to hold traditional Republican states that are leaning towards his opponent, while trying to steal Democratic Pennsylvania.
“I voted,” Mr Obama declared at a polling station in Chicago.
Before voting in Arizona, Mr McCain told CBS television that many of the battleground states had narrowed in his favour, saying there was a “good scenario where we can win”.
”I know I’m still the underdog…you can’t imagine the excitement of an individual to be this close to the most important position in the world,” said Mr McCain. “I’ll enjoy it…I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
Many states were expecting record turnout as Mr Obama bids to become the first black president in American history. Pre-dawn queues formed hours before polls opened, with long lines continuing through the morning. An estimated 20-30m have already taken advantage of early polling to cast their ballots in recent days.
Rain or Shine
Hundreds stood in the rain from 4.30am in parts of Virginia, a traditionally Republican state where surveys showed Mr Obama ahead. In a reflection of the importance of the state, Mr Obama finished his campaign to be the first black occupant of the White House at a giant rally in Virginia on Monday night.
In Youngstown Ohio, polling stations in the city’s West Side reported long lines soon after the polls opened at 6.30am, adding to expectations of a high turn out on a day of bright autumnal sunshine.
In the New Hampshire village of Dixville Notch, where locals voted shortly after midnight, Mr Obama secured a 15-6 landslide. The tiny village is traditionally first to declare. Although hardly representative of the final outcome, it was the first time its inhabitants had chosen a Democrat since 1968.
The first polls close on the east coast at 6pm EST (11 pm GMT)
Mr Obama received an unusual endorsement from Fidel Castro, the former Cuban president, who said he was “without a doubt more intelligent, refined and even-handed than his Republican adversary. The ailing Cuban leader said Mr McCain was “old, belligerent, uncultivated, unintelligent and in poor health.’’
On Monday night the two candidates wound up their presidential campaigns in a whirlwind of rallies and speeches even as new data underlined the scale of the economic crisis awaiting the winner.
“After decades of broken politics in Washington, eight years of failed policies from George Bush, and 21 months of a campaign that has taken us from the rocky coast of Maine to the sunshine of California, we are one day away from change in America,” Mr Obama told crowds at Manassas, a rapidly growing suburb in northern Virginia.
A battered economy
But whether he fulfils the predictions of the opinion polls which give him an average seven-percentage point lead, or Mr McCain, the Republican Arizona senator, manages a last-minute upset, either man will face the bleakest economic outlook for the country in a generation.
Manufacturing activity plunged to its lowest level since 1982 last month, the Institute for Supply Management reported on Monday, providing further evidence of the deepening of US economic turmoil. The scale of the downturn was starkly illustrated by the October car sales figures which hit their lowest level for 25 years. GM’s car and light-truck sales fell by 45 per cent and Ford’s by 30 per cent.
On Tuesday, the commerce department reported that in September new orders received by US factories took a surprisingly steep tumble for a second month in a row.
Mr Obama on Monday focused almost wholly on America’s worsening economy, seeking to tar Mr McCain with the policy failings of George W. Bush, the outgoing president.
Death of a silent heroine
Meanwhile, Mr Obama’s last day of campaigning was interrupted by news that his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, had died in Hawaii. The Illinois senator last month broke his schedule to visit the 86-year-old, who helped raise him, after learning she was losing a battle with cancer. In a rare display of emotion, Mr Obama wiped away a tear as he referred to her death at a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In last-minute electioneering on Monday, the candidates spread out to battleground states from Pennsylvania to New Mexico and from Florida to Virginia.
“I’ve been travelling too much,” said a visibly tired Mr Obama, after addressing his audience at a rally in Jacksonville, Florida, as “Ohio”.
In an even more frantic schedule, Mr McCain was visiting seven states as he shuttled between Moon Township, Pennsylvania, and Prescott, Arizona, where he was winding up his campaign at 2am on Tuesday.
“My friends, I’ve been fighting for this country since I was 17 years old, and I have the scars to prove it,” the Vietnam war veteran told a rally in Tampa, Florida. “If I’m elected president, I will fight to shake up Washington and take America in a new direction from my first day in office until my last.”
Democrats better organised
With campaigning close to an end, the two sides switched to getting out the vote on Tuesday. A massive operation by the Obama team looked like outstripping the historically better organised Republicans, at least in terms of size. The Democrats have fielded an army of 1.5m volunteers and almost 800 offices across the 50 states.
Charlie Black, a senior adviser to Mr McCain, rejected widespread perceptions that the Republican “ground game” was weaker than in previous years, saying the McCain campaign had made 60 per cent more phone calls and other “voter connections” than the Bush campaign in 2004.
A series of opinion polls put Mr Obama’s support at more than 50 per cent nationally, and indicated that he held a strong lead among the almost 30 per cent of respondents who had already voted.