President Obama won reelection, Democrats retained control of the Senate, and Republicans retained control of the House Tuesday night, in a presidential election that, while close, seemed to go the president’s way from the beginning of the evening and was called far earlier than many people expected.
In some ways, the status quo was the big winner.
But it was a far narrower victory for Mr. Obama than it was four years ago, with states like Indiana and North Carolina going Republican this time around, and nail-bitingly close votes in Virginia, Ohio, and Florida as votes came in Tuesday night.
In the end, Ohio was the first of the major swing states to be called by the media for the president, seemingly assuring him of a second term. Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Iowa also helped assure his victory, and Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia soon followed.
If the president prevails in Florida, which seemed likely late Tuesday evening, the final electoral tally would come in at 332 for Obama, against Romney’s 206.
The popular vote was far closer, and was still coming in from late-voting states in the West, but Obama seemed assured of winning.
“A lot of it comes down to the economy,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. “If the economy were stronger the president would be doing better, if it were weaker Mitt Romney might [have won]. But it was just good enough to push the president over the finish line.”
Obama’s victory had been predicted by most pollsters in recent days, but his narrower margin of victory versus 2008 makes it harder for him to claim a strong mandate and puts him in a somewhat weaker position as president.
Still, given the high unemployment rate, weak economy, and relatively low presidential approval ratings, the fact that Democrats retained both the presidency and their control of the Senate was a big coup for their party – or, perhaps more accurately, a big loss for Republicans, and possibly a wakeup call for the Republican party as it looks to its future.
All the dynamics in place should have helped Republicans unseat the incumbent, and yet they were unable to do so. While the vote was close, it wasn’t as close as some had expected.
Expect a lot of finger-pointing in coming days as Republican insiders decide where to lay blame: whether with Romney, considered a weak, gaffe-prone candidate by many, or with his campaign managers, or even hurricane Sandy.
Particularly disturbing for Republicans may be what exit polls showed about demographics. Women, Hispanics, and young people helped propel Obama to victory. There was about a 10-point gender gap, with exit polls showing 54 percent of women voting for Obama compared with 44 percent of women for Romney.
And Obama has an even stronger edge with Hispanics and young people – both key constituencies for any political party looking to the future. Exit polls at one point in the evening showed Hispanics going for Obama 69 percent to 30 percent. And it was the growth of non-Cuban Hispanics in Florida who may be to thank for delivering that state to Obama (with returns suggesting Obama could take the state).
“Mr. Obama had a two-thirds advantage with non-Cuban Hispanics in the exit poll,” wrote The New York Times’s polling expert Nate Silver during his liveblog of the results. “And they made up 10 percent of the voting population, compared with 6 percent for Cuban-Americans…. If Mr. Obama ekes out a win in Florida, this will have a lot to do with it.”
Voters under 30 preferred Obama to Romney 59 percent to 37 percent, while voters over age 65 preferred Romney 56 percent to 43 percent.
White voters, on the other hand – whose percentage of the electorate is dwindling – voted for Romney over Obama by a wide margin, 59 percent to 39 percent.
It all adds up to a problem for the GOP as it looks to the future. Early in the evening, even before the race was called, Bill O’Reilly was bemoaning the new demographics, saying that “the white establishment is now the minority.”
Obama, too, faces challenges, and will have little time to savor his victory.
“He’s got a tough road, because people in Congress don’t really owe him very much,” says Professor Pitney. “Republicans in the House certainly aren’t intimidated by him, and Democrats in the House are probably a little angry at him for not giving them more help. Democrats in the Senate are winning mostly because of Republican fumbles. This squeaker is not much of a mandate.”
Most immediately, Obama will face the challenge of dealing with the nation’s so-called “fiscal cliff” – the combination of tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to take effect in January – in which he’ll face off with Republicans in Congress at the end of this year and almost certainly into the coming year as well.
With House Speaker John Boehner leading a continued Republican House – and firm in his opinion that Obama lacks a strong mandate – the nation is likely to see Round 2 of the Obama-Boehner standoff it witnessed last year.
But, at least for one night, Obama supporters had a victory to savor after a brutal and agonizingly close election season, as they watched the nation give America’s first African-American president a second term.
Grant Park was historic, he says, but this one “is even more significant now.”
“The first four years he had to stabilize things from the previous administration,” says Mr. Woods. “He now needs to finish the job and move forward.”
• Staff writer Mark Guarino contributed to this report from Chicago.