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Political History Takes New Course in ’08 Election

Elections from both the 1930s and the 1990s have centered on the economy, but the 2008 presidential race featured a unique combination of economic, racial and foreign policy issues. Historians discuss the events and offer some parallels from past elections.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    No matter the specific results, history is being made today. And Margaret Warner is on our history beat tonight.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And with me for that, our historians team: presidential historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University; and Peniel Joseph, professor of history and African-American studies at Brandeis University.

    Well, as Jim just said, as we heard one of the women in Kwame's Video Your Vote piece say, she said, "We are seeing history." This is an historic election, is it not, Richard, on many levels?

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University:

    Oh, sure. There's the history you make for the first time and there's the history that you revisit.

    Clearly, in terms of what is unprecedented, the headline about this is, come January, we will have our first African-American president or our first female vice president. That's the headline. And it's a pretty impressive headline.

    Beyond that headline, however, when you begin to ask what is motivating people, in terms of voting, I think you can look at a number of elections in the past which are basically about the economy. And I think, for the last six weeks, that's certainly been what has been driving this more than anything else.

    It feels a lot like 1980, when there was clearly a desire on the part of most people for something other than the status quo, but the challenger, Ronald Reagan, had to convince a majority of the country that he represented a safe alternative to the status quo.