In the end, it wasn't close. Barack Obama won re-election handily over Mitt Romney with 303 electoral votes (so far), well more than the 270 electoral votes needed. Of the nine battleground states that were up for grabs, Obama won seven of them, losing only North Carolina (Florida remains to be called). But while Obama won those states, he didn't crush it; he won instead, a string of precise narrow victories. He didn’t win because his leadership during Hurricane Sandy blew all those swing votes his way (though it may have helped). The president won because he ran a permanent campaign, keeping his offices open in the battleground states from his 2008 campaign, tending his coalition assiduously, and because he relentlessly defined his opponent. His was the better campaign. The Democratic candidate of “hope and change” beat the big business Republican in the trenches, in one state after another.
President Obama’s tactical victory is clear when you look at the election returns. He has no grand mandate that comes out of Tuesday’s numbers. He has been re-elected, but his policies did not win the day. Voters didn't turn their faces up to the vision he painted the way they did in 2008. When voters were asked which candidate had a vision for the future, Romney won that question in exit polls, 55 percent to 43 percent. Asked about Obama's signature achievement, health care, voters did not approve. Forty-nine percent said they wanted it repealed in part or whole. Voters also said the federal government was too large.
Voters are deeply divided by race and age. The president can credit strong support from women. He led by 11 percentage points among women, while Romney led by 7 points among men. There was also an Obama advantage among younger voters. He grabbed a majority of those under 45. Older voters broke for Romney. Obama lost the white vote by a larger margin than in 2008 when he got 43 percent of the vote. On Tuesday, he got just 40 percent of the white vote. They represented virtually the same share of the electorate as before. But Obama made up for that deficit by winning handily with minorities, which represented an ever-so-slightly larger share of the vote.
The best news the president can find in the exit polls was that he fought the economic question to a tie. Voters who cared about the economy picked Romney by only one point over Obama, 49 percent to 48 percent. Still, Obama simply neutralized his opponent; there's nothing in that number that suggests a mandate. Sixty percent of voters backed Obama's call for tax increases for those with incomes over $250,000. But that’s a proposal that will have no life beyond the campaign trail. Polls show that voters have long supported this idea. It doesn’t happen because the proposal will never shake loose enough of the partisan opposition to make it real.
Now the candidate of “hope and change” must bind up his wounds and prepare himself for another round. Half of the country is going to be upset by this outcome, and the president, who once knew how to make the music of reconciliation, will have to whip up some kind of stirring message in the months to come.
The White House knew what tone to strike when it released its first post-election photograph, which was a vision not of jubilation but of almost relief. In his remarks, Obama immediately moved to start the reconciliation. "We rise or fall together as one nation," he said. He then praised Romney and his family: "From George to Lenore to their son Mitt, they give back through public service and that is a legacy that we honor and applaud tonight." He promised to sit down with Romney in the coming weeks to "talk about moving this country forward." He said the vote was a vote for action to focus on jobs and that in the weeks and months ahead he would work with the other party. "Whether I earned your vote or not ... you have made me a better president. I return to the White House more determined than ever."
What was ratified on election night was the benefit of a permanent campaign and the talent of the Obama team. The much vaunted Obama ground game appears to have been a real thing. (David Axelrod's candidate won by more than a whisker, and Axelrod got to keep his; he'd pledged to shave off his mustache if Obama lost Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Minnesota.) His campaign team was so formidable that it made up for all the inadequacies, vulnerabilities, and missteps (remember that first debate?) of a weak incumbent president in a sputtering economy. He pulled out every stop possible: Bill Clinton, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, and Katy Perry in a dress that was as tight as Obama’s margin in Florida.
A few theories of political science were upheld. Debates didn't change the outcome, and late-deciding voters don't break for the challenger. Nine percent of voters said they made up their mind with three days to go, and they broke for the president, 51 percent to Romney’s 44 percent.
In the end, Romney was right. It was all about the economy. But Americans seemed to want more than someone who cares about fixing the problem; they want someone they think cares about them. It was the empathy, stupid. When voters were asked which candidate cared more about then, Obama won more than 80 percent of those voters.
The president won among African-Americans, who were 13 percent of the electorate, by 93 percent to 6 percent. He won among Hispanics, 70 percent to 30 percent. Romney's poor performance with Hispanics, in particular, is likely to start a wave of soul-searching in the party about how to reach out to the country’s fastest-growing minority group.