President Barack Obama overcame a disappointingly slow economic recovery and a massive advertising onslaught to win a second term Tuesday night, forging a coalition of women, minorities and young people that reflects the changing political face of America.
The outcome was surprisingly swift. Major television networks called the race against Republican Mitt Romney less than 20 minutes after the polls closed on the West Coast, as a succession of battleground states tipped the president’s way.
About 90 minutes later, the former Massachusetts governor offered his concession in a private phone conversation with the president.
Claiming victory before a roaring, flag-waving crowd in his hometown of Chicago, Obama summoned a bit of the poetry that was absent throughout much of the acrid campaign. He told supporters that the country was moving forward “because of you.”
“You reaffirmed the spirit that has triumphed over war and depression, the spirit that has lifted this country from the depths of despair to the great heights of hope,” he said, “the belief that while each of us will pursue our own individual dreams, we are an American family, and we rise or fall together as one nation and one people.”
Romney, standing alone on a flag-bedecked stage in Boston, spoke before Obama.
“This is a time of great challenge for America,” he told disconsolate supporters, his voice worn and expression taut, “and I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation.”
For all the agitation and unhappiness with Washington, a constant of public opinion this election season, the federal government in January will look much as it does today. In the fight for Congress, Republicans held onto the House majority they captured in 2010 and Democrats beat back long odds to keep control of the U.S. Senate.
For Obama, 51, winning a second term proved far more difficult than his barrier-breaking romp four years ago to become the nation’s first black president. His re-election drive bore only a faint resemblance to the uplift and aspiration of 2008. He did, however, manage to replicate his overwhelming support among blacks and Latinos – the fastest-growing part of the electorate – and again won among women.
New campaign laws produced a flood of more than $2.5 billion in spending, much of it from outside groups. There were more than 1 million TV ads, many of them scathingly negative. Even so, the political map ended up looking much as it did in 2008. The only states that flipped to Romney, pending final results, were North Carolina and Indiana, both icing on Obama’s first victory.
While Florida, one of the most fiercely contested states – was too close to call Tuesday, a victory there would only pad Obama’s margin well past the 270 electoral votes needed to claim the White House. Of the handful of states in which the most fierce combat took place, Romney claimed only one, North Carolina, while Obama carried Ohio, Virginia, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and Colorado.
The popular vote was another matter, with the possibility that Obama would win the Electoral College and the presidency while losing the popular vote – the same way George W. Bush won in 2000. Both candidates had about 49 percent, with 81 percent of precincts reporting.
There were big stakes in the election: the fate of tax cuts scheduled to lapse at year’s end, the likelihood of one or more appointments to the Supreme Court and, more fundamentally, two visions for the proper role of government, embodied by competing plans for health care and the future of Medicare and Medicaid.
But a smallness suffused much of the campaign, which was fought on the relatively narrow ground of 10 or so states.
The president’s strategists filleted the electorate to pursue narrow slices with special appeals: immigration reform to spur Latino turnout, cheaper student loans to entice young people to the polls, legal abortion and access to contraception to persuade women to support the president.
Romney hewed to a similar strategy, spending months reaching out to the Republican Party’s conservative base to heal the wounds of a bitter primary season, before finally pivoting to appeal to the middle of the electorate in the last weeks of the contest.
There was none of the historical resonance of 2008, when Obama battled a former first lady to win the Democratic nomination, then became the nation’s first black president. Even Obama supporters said the campaign was less a crusade than a rear-guard fight to preserve the accomplishments of the last four years.
The president pushed through a massive spending package early in his term that helped stave off a second Depression, according to many independent analysts. Republicans disagreed, saying Obama deepened the crisis and delayed recovery, a dispute that played out at the heart of the presidential race.
Both sides had evidence to cite. The president pointed to millions of private-sector jobs created, for a net gain under his administration. Romney noted the country’s stubbornly high unemployment rate. That was not, Romney said endlessly, the change that people voted for in 2008.
Obama pursued an activist agenda in his first two years, passing an ambitious health care plan that had been a Democratic goal for decades. There was, however, a steep political price. Resistance gave rise to the “tea party” movement, and Republicans gained 63 seats to seize control of the House in the midterm election.
Facing a tough re-election fight, Obama enjoyed one singular advantage: avoiding a primary challenge, which could have divided the Democratic Party.
Romney illustrated that danger.
After losing the GOP nomination in 2008, he started the primary season as the front-runner. But he struggled against a weak field and might have lost but for the intervention of free-spending outside groups that bombarded Romney’s rivals with a deluge of negative ads.
Even so, the fight exacted a heavy toll on Romney. His hard-line stance on immigration appealed to conservative primary voters, and his staunch opposition to abortion and promise to slash federal funding for Planned Parenthood was effective in fending off rivals. But both positions hurt him in the fall campaign with Latino and women voters, respectively.
While Romney worked to consolidate GOP support, the Obama campaign and its allies set out to define their rival through a blitz of negative ads that portrayed him as a heartless corporate profiteer. It was a charge first leveled in the Republican primaries, and it proved especially resonant in Ohio and among victims of the Rust Belt’s decline.
Romney’s opposition to the Obama-backed bailout of the auto industry, which faced collapse amid the near-economic meltdown, was especially hurtful across the Midwest.
After a middling GOP convention – perhaps best remembered for an odd turn by actor Clint Eastwood addressing an empty chair intended to represent Obama – many Republicans privately despaired that the race was slipping from Romney’s grasp.
The economy, at long last, seemed to be steadily picking up and creating jobs. Worse for Romney, a secretly recorded videotape surfaced from Mother Jones magazine showing him disparaging the 47 percent of Americans who paid no federal income tax last year. He said these people saw themselves as “victims” and that they were overly reliant on government and unwilling to fend for themselves.
Just as the gloom thickened, Romney turned in a commanding Oct. 3 debate performance against a surprisingly listless Obama. Overnight, Republican enthusiasm soared, the opinion polls showed a closer contest, and the race was suddenly back on.
Obama rebounded with far stronger performances in the two debates that followed and the campaign settled into a grinding sort of stalemate – Romney with a marginal lead in national polls, Obama with an advantage in the state-by-state Electoral College. Then nature delivered a final surprise in the form of Superstorm Sandy. The president abandoned his campaign for three days and flew to the Jersey Shore to appear alongside the state’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, an erstwhile foe.