American voters turned out in record numbers yesterday in the most enthralling presidential election in decades, with Democrats daring to hope that the polls and pundits had got it right all along and Barack Hussein Obama, 47, would wake up this morning as the president-elect of the United States.
From Ohio to California, from Illinois to Oklahoma, electoral officials reported queues forming even before dawn as voters seized their chance to determine the outcome of an election that was set to make history, if not by sending the first ever black American to the Oval Office, then by picking the first woman vice-president.
They came before work. They snuck out from work. Some had newspapers in hand to read the final reports from the campaign trail as they waited their turn for the booths. Some had coffee to keep them alert. Older folk brought chairs, worried that the wait might be too much. Others had music to pass the time. When they were done, some had tears in their eyes. If history was about to happen, they had been part of it.
For African Americans, the sensation of ticking the box for Mr Obama was especially intense. "I want to tell the American people that today we see God's hand and the sun is now shining in the darkness," said Velma Pate, a poll worker in Glenwood, near Chicago. Mrs Pate is old enough to remember segregation in America – a time, she recalled, when she could not drink from the same water fountain as a white person.
Team Obama knew the voter surge was good news. The senator's path to victory was predicated on bringing millions of first-time voters to the polls, particularly the young and members of minorities. The question about whether the black and youth vote would actually materialise was at last being answered.
For America, it was yet more profound. Call it the demise of cynicism or the end of apathy. The country that pretends to be the standard-bearer of the democratic process and presumes, indeed, to export the exercise of democracy to the other countries around the world – to Iraq, to South Africa – was living up to its own standards. Uncle Sam, after years of lethargy, had caught election fever. Both candidates did the traditional thing, casting their votes in their home cities – Mr Obama in Chicago and John McCain in Phoenix – at the start of the day before the glare of the cameras. In a break with tradition that reflected the desperation in the Republican camp, Mr McCain later attended election-day rallies in two western battleground states, Colorado and New Mexico. "Fight for our country! Fight for what you believe in!" the Republican senator told supporters at a rally at Grand Junction, Colorado. "Fight for America. Fight for the ideals and culture of free people! Fight for our future! Fight for justice for all! Stand up, stand up and fight!"
Mr Obama dawdled for several minutes with his wife and daughters at the voting machine at a polling station in a South Chicago school gymnasium. While the senator was set to appear at a huge election night party outdoors in Chicago's Grant Park late last night – after playing a lucky game of basketball in the afternoon – a quieter event was set for Mr McCain at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix.
Glitches in voting seemed to be fairly limited, although reports were coming in from some precincts in the critical state of Virginia of scattered problems with voting machines. Elsewhere, polling personnel said most problems, mostly mechanical, stemmed from the sheer high volume of voters.
Democrats have suffered cruel disappointment before, not least when George Bush snatched victory from Al Gore in 2000. Mr Obama had said the polls would narrow in the last days of the race – but they hadn't. Even Karl Rove, the dark master of political strategy for Mr Bush, was predicting a convincing win for Mr Obama.
An Obama win is one thing. If, by this morning, it is clear he has polled more than 50 per cent, however, he will be the first Democrat to break that threshold since Jimmy Carter. His mandate to govern will be solid, helped also by the increased majorities expected for Democrats on Capitol Hill. Party officials were looking particularly for gains in the US Senate, perhaps taking the party to the 60-seat mark that would protect it from Republican filibusters.
Among those expressing confidence was the former president, Bill Clinton, who voted early in Chappaqua, New York, with his wife, Hillary – she who surely still wished it had been her name on the ballot. But Mr Clinton had a warning: "Our party tomorrow will wake up with an enormous opportunity but an enormous responsibility."
The managing of expectations will be the first order of business today. Mr Bush remains the land's chief executive until the inauguration of his successor on 20 January. Thereafter, the new president will inherit a country beset by economic difficulties and mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is in part because of those multiple challenges that so many voters felt compelled to take part in the election. But the turnout was, of course, also driven by an election strewn with unexpected drama and juiced by an unusually compelling cast of candidates. It was the first election since 1928 when neither an incumbent president nor vice-president had sought the nomination of their parties. Extreme voltage has flowed through the process even since the frigid day in January 2007 when Mr Obama, then a barely known novice senator from Illinois, declared his intention to seek the presidency, setting up the collision between him and Mrs Clinton. Their fight for the nomination lasted until June, capturing the attention not just of this country but of the world.
The Republicans offered drama of their own. Their man was the old war hero with a history of kissing defeat and achieving unexpected victory. "I've loved every minute of it," Mr McCain said yesterday. "Every day, being able to meet the people we've met and go the places we've gone, it's been an unforgettable experience."
But if some conservative Republicans had imagined sitting out the 2008 poll, all that changedwith Sarah Palin. Her surprise position on the McCain ticket at first galvanised the base but, in time, seemed to be a net negative for Mr McCain as she turned off moderates and independents.
Mrs Palin cast her vote in her home town of Wasilla, where she was once mayor. "I hope, pray, believe I will be able to wake up as vice-president-elect," she said.