The Obamas, with their two daughters in tow, voted yesterday morning at Beulah Shoesmith Elementary School, in their Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. (Controversial former radical William Ayers, whose relationship with Obama became a staple of McCain-Palin speeches, voted earlier at the same precinct, but ignored reporters' questions about his ballot.)

  Daughter Malia, 10, was by Michelle Obama's side when she cast her ballot, while Sasha, 7, watched her father vote.

  "The journey ends, but voting with my daughters, that was a big deal," Obama said later. "I noticed that Michelle took a long time, though. I had to check to see who she was voting for."

  The simple act of voting was a prosaic close to the longest and most expensive presidential election in U.S. history, one that fundamentally changed national politics in communication strategy and voter outreach.

  Obama's unilateral decision to forgo public financing for his campaign may signal the end of that Watergate-era reform, as McCain found himself massively outspent.

  By mid-October, Obama had reported raising nearly $600 million, including a record-shattering $150 million in September. Combined with money the Democratic National Committee spent during the general election, he spent nearly $745 million on his primary and general-election campaigns.

  The combined spending figure for McCain and the Republican Party was nearly $450 million by mid-October.

  The general-election campaign began with simple themes: Obama said McCain's candidacy represented nothing more than a continuation of the Bush administration, while McCain portrayed Obama as too inexperienced to lead a country involved in two wars and under the threat of terrorism.

  McCain offered his years of experience and his maverick record of often bucking the leadership of his party as evidence of the kind of president he would be, and characterized Obama as a man of eloquent speeches but empty rhetoric.

  McCain criticized Obama's summer tours of Afghanistan and Iraq as too little too late, and he mocked the lavish reception the Democrat received in the Middle East and Europe. McCain even ran an ad of a rally Obama held before 200,000 people in Berlin, with an announcer saying: "He's the biggest celebrity in the world."

  Obama shored up his perceived weaknesses with Biden, a longtime senator fluent in foreign affairs and national policy but prone to gaffes. But the decision was well-received, and Obama enjoyed a harmonious Democratic National Convention, where he was praised by his former rival for the nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).

  He ended the convention with an acceptance speech before 75,000 at a football stadium in Denver, something no nominee had attempted since Kennedy in 1960.

  Just a day later, McCain stepped on the Democrats' celebration with his selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whom he described as a fellow outsider who would "shake up Washington." From the moment she was introduced, Palin made an appeal to women, but her chief asset seemed to be reenergizing the conservative GOP base of the party that for years had been skeptical of McCain.

  The weeks after the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., were the only ones in the long history of the campaign in which the party had enjoyed an advantage. But that ended as the nation's economy worsened.

  When the financial meltdown on Wall Street began in mid-September, McCain's advisers winced as their candidate told an audience in Jacksonville, Fla., that the "fundamentals of the economy are sound." Just hours later in Orlando, the candidate declared the economy in "crisis."

  Such trepidation did not serve McCain well -- at one point, as Congress dealt with a $700 billion rescue plan for Wall Street, he suspended his campaign to fly back to Washington -- and Obama seemed to find traction with voters by declaring his rival's actions "erratic."

  Obama emerged as the Democratic nominee from the crucible of the longest-ever nomination fight.

  But Obama stunned Sen. Clinton, and the nation, by repeatedly demolishing assumptions about his ability to raise money, his organizational strength and his ability to appeal to white voters. Those three factors came together in Iowa, as he won a convincing victory in the state's Democratic caucuses.

  His one-time rival worked hard for his election and Clinton said last night: "We are celebrating an historic victory for the American people. This was a long and hard-fought campaign, but the result was well worth the wait."

  Staff writers Michael Abramowitz and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.