In 2008, President Obama made history by becoming the first African-American elected to the White House. In 2012, he did it again – this time, by winning reelection despite a 7.9 percent unemployment rate and a sluggish economy, in a contest against a former businessman, Mitt Romney, who had made the economy the centerpiece of his campaign.
According to exit polls, nearly 60 percent of voters cited the economy as the most important issue – but critically, more voters were inclined to penalize former President George W. Bush than Mr. Obama for the country’s economic woes. And while three-quarters of voters described economic conditions as "not so good" or "poor," they were almost evenly split on which candidate would do a better job handling the economy.
It was a hard-fought win for the president, after a campaign that even to many of his supporters seemed notably less inspirational – and far more negative – than his 2008 run. And his margin of victory was, as anticipated, much narrower than four years ago.
"Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated," Obama said in his victory speech at Chicago’s McCormick Place, where he came onstage with his whole family to the sounds of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered." "And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy. That won't change after tonight. And it shouldn't.... But despite all our differences, most of us share certain hopes for American's future."
"We are an American family and we rise or fall together as one nation,” Obama added. “Whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you, I have learned from you, and you have made me a better president.”
Obama also said he “has never been more hopeful about America,” and said he looks forward to sitting down with Romney in coming weeks to “talk about where we can work together to move this country forward.”
For his part, in his concession speech, Mr. Romney described the nation as being "at a critical point," adding: "At a time like this we can't risk partisan bickering and political posturing." Calling it "a time of great challenges for America," he said, "I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation."
As many observers predicted, it was the state of Ohio that ultimately put Obama over the top Tuesday night (at least, based on most network calls). Ohio had been seen by both sides as the most important battleground of this campaign cycle – a state hard hit by job losses, but where Obama’s support for the auto bailout appeared to provide a critical, enduring edge.
Significantly, Obama’s message of looking out for the middle class appeared to carry more weight than Romney’s message focusing on job creation. According to exit polls, three-quarters of voters said Obama's policies would favor the middle class or the poor, while 54 percent felt Romney's policies would favor the rich.
The victory was a testament to the Obama campaign’s vaunted turnout operation, which brought its supporters to the polls in numbers that in some districts appeared to rival 2008’s turnout, despite what had been seen as generally dampened enthusiasm.
It also vindicated many of the preelection polls, which some conservatives had criticized as oversampling Democrats. In the end, exit polls appeared to indicate that in many states, the projected ratios of Democrats to Republicans had been fairly accurate.
The question now is what kind of mandate – if any – Obama may have going into his second term, and what kind of cooperation he may get from Congress going forward. The country remains sharply, and in many cases bitterly, divided. And although the Senate will remain in Democratic hands, Republicans will still control the House of Representatives. Given the wide chasm separating the parties on issues ranging from taxes to entitlements, it seems unlikely that there will be much common ground going forward.
But one area where political pressures suggest there may be at least a chance for some sort of compromise is immigration – in part because this election underscored once again just how badly the Republican party needs to improve its standing among Hispanic voters.
Indeed, the racial divide remains one of the most glaring aspects of the 2012 electoral results. Preliminary exit polls showed Obama winning just 40 percent of the white vote (down 3 points from 2008) to Romney’s 58 percent. Among white men, Obama performed even more poorly, winning just 36 percent (a drop of 5 points from 2008). But Obama won 69 percent of Hispanics, to Romney’s 29 percent, and 93 percent of blacks, to Romney’s 6 percent.
And although the economy was the dominant issue, in the end, the Obama campaign's focus on so-called “women’s issues” throughout this election cycle, from abortion to contraception, also appeared to pay off – since the traditional Democratic gender gap appeared to hold for the president. Exit polls showed Obama won women by 12 points, while Romney won men by just 7 points.
• Staff writer Liz Marlantes contributed to this report.