To many voters, the choice came down to this: John McCain felt like yesterday. Barack Obama felt like tomorrow.
In an election fought on Obama's terms - the hunger for "change" - it's hard to imagine the American people embarking on a more historic path than electing the first black president.
But the landslide margins and warm glow of history mask a larger truth about last night. For Obama to make this happen, the Hawaiian-born son of a Kenyan father, everything had to go his way.
He had to run a near-flawless campaign - a gutsy grab for Republican states, a massive fundraising haul, a voter-turnout push to awaken a new Democratic majority, all backed by his own surefooted steps through America's racial minefield.
But he also benefited from a backdrop of gloom, an economic calamity atop an unpopular war that fueled a searing anti-Republican mood. At 72, McCain seemed to some a figure from a long-ago war, and he never fixed on a message that could beat Obama.
Some say an African-American president was inevitable - someday - the triumph of demographics in a land that will count whites a minority in 34 years. But it took this campaign, in this time, to make it happen now.
"I've believed for years now that there are enough voters out there that are ready to elect a black president," said Michael Fauntroy, a George Mason University professor who studies black politics.
"But you still needed all of these other things ... to come together to create an event where the country says, 'You know what? Let's do it,'" Fauntroy said.
Here are the five things Obama did to win:
1 CLEARED THE EXPERIENCE BAR. He may be a 47-year-old first-term senator, but at the moment when it counted, he looked more ready for the job than the candidate running on experience.
Obama went a long way toward winning the White House toward the end of September, when McCain announced he was suspending his campaign to return to Washington for the financial bailout. At a key moment when Americans were tuning in to the race, one candidate looked rash and impetuous, the other cool and careful. Obama capped it off with three debate performances where he seemed almost unflappable.
"Every time you saw him in those debates, you just felt like this is a very smart, very capable guy who knows what he's talking about," said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. "You close your eyes [to listen] - he's a president."
2 HARNESSED THE
Obama announced his vice-presidential pick of Joe Biden by text-message and e-mail - and added to a monstrous high-tech voter file his campaign used to link supporters, organize volunteers and raise massive amounts of money, often in $5 and $10 increments. He also used the Web to reach new, young and African-American voters - boosting voter turnout to levels that experts say could rival those seen in the 1960s.
3 EXPANDED THE MAP.
By now, it's easy to forget that Democrats aren't really supposed to compete in states like North Carolina and Colorado, but Obama set out early to expand the map and force McCain to spend precious time and money defending states President George W. Bush won in 2004. He targeted suburban moderates in Virginia, African-Americans in North Carolina and Hispanics in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada - perhaps even creating a lasting new Democratic majority that could realign American politics for years to come.
4 MADE MCCAIN = BUSH.
McCain asked voters to do something they rarely do - reach a generation back to find their next leader. It didn't help that Bush is setting new records for public disapproval. McCain never succeeded in shaking Bush - and voters punished him for his unflinching support of the Iraq war, and then the economic meltdown hit. Polls showed that running mate Sarah Palin also hurt.
5 BEING BARACK OBAMA.
Some historians believe Obama came to the race with a unique background to seek the presidency - the son of mixed-race parents who did not grow up in the segregated South or experience civil-rights struggles firsthand. He rarely spoke of race in the campaign but tailored his appeals to the broad middle class - a style that made some call him a "post-racial candidate," a very modern approach indeed.
Obama signals "we may not be where we should be yet, but we're surely on our way," said civil-rights scholar Harvard Sitkoff of the University of New Hampshire. "We're not a color-blind society, we're not devoid of racism, but ... we are a different nation today than we once upon a time were."
THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE
2008 popular and electorial vote totals as of 12:50 a.m.
W. Va. (5)
(appeared in earlier edition)
270 needed to win