This study examines the 2008 presidential election in the context of critical elections, applying V. O. Key's definitions. The primary sources are newspapers and magazines acquired in the United States the first week after the election, and the secondary sources were chosen among scholars acknowledged for their work on elections and voting, like David Lawrence, David Mayhew and Arthur Paulson. The 2008 election was expected to be both significant and extraordinary, due to the considerable polarization within the American electorate in the years after the invasion in Iraq. After the financial crisis exploded in September 2008 it was more or less expected that the Democrats would win the election in November. The exploration shows that the election had some aspects compatible with a critical election, liker voter concern and a high voter turnout, but mostly, Obama's victory turned out to be a combination of his charismatic personality in combination with his political gifts and well-run campaign. Also the fact that he spent considerable time and money in strongly Republican states proved to be a smart strategy. Obama's victory was also to a great extent secured by high voter turnout among non-whites more than by the traditional criteria for critical elections. This was evident in the four former Republican states investigated in this thesis. Enthusiasm and expectations of a new era, not only voter concern influenced the electorate. This was also reflected in the primary sources applied in this thesis. Pride, enthusiasm, hope for the future and above all, the racial aspect of the election permeated the media's coverage. The presidential elections in 1968 and 1980 are explored according to Key's definitions, as these two elections are the two post-World War II elections most suitable for comparison to the 2008 election. The analysis shows that Obama's victory has most in common with Reagan's victory. In both elections the charismatic candidate and his smooth campaign seem to have mattered more to voters than the party itself.
The thesis claims that by including campaign techniques and charismatic candidates in to Key's definitions would be to expand his intentions too far, but future scholars might come to re-define the conceptualization of critical elections so that modern elections will fit in to the concept. This study found that the 2008 presidential election most of all was an election where the racial barrier was forced, and where the concept change we can believe in appears to have resonated with many Americans. Scholars have not discussed and analyzed this election thoroughly yet, and future scrutiny might come to other conclusions.