President Obama won a second term by marrying the new Democratic coalition with just enough of the old to overcome enduring economic disenchantment and a cavernous racial divide.
In many places, particularly across the Sun Belt, Obama mobilized the Democrats' new "coalition of the ascendant," winning enough support among young people, minorities and college-educated whites, especially women, to overcome very weak numbers among blue-collar whites and college-educated men. But in the upper Midwest, where there are not enough of those voters to win, Obama attracted just enough working-class whites to hold the critical battlegrounds of Wisconsin, Iowa, and above all Ohio against Mitt Romney's forceful challenge.
Navigating those two tightropes, Obama held enough states to win a comfortable margin in the Electoral College, despite the headwind of the frustratingly slow economic recovery.
Yet while Obama's victory was emphatic from some angles, it was tenuously equivocal from others.
On the one hand, Obama's success underscored the demographic and geographic advantages that Democrats have developed over the past quarter-century in the race for the White House. With the victory, Democrats have now won the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections--matching the Republican record from 1968-1988 (if not the massive margins the GOP frequently racked up during those years). Obama also held all 18 "blue wall" states that have voted Democratic in each election since 1992. By doing so he set a new milestone: that is the most states Democrats have won that often since the formation of the modern party system in 1828.
In another important success, Obama's unprecedented effort to reshape the electorate's composition, boosted by the tailwind of changing demography, also paid off: According to the exit polls, the share of votes cast by minorities increased to 28 percent (just as Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, had predicted for months). The president captured an overwhelming 80 percent of those voters, including not only more than nine in 10 African-Americans, but also about seven in 10 Hispanics, and about three in four Asians.
In the Sun Belt, that rising minority participation allowed him to overcome a weak performance among whites to win Virginia, Nevada, and Colorado, and to hold a narrow lead late into the night in Florida. In the key Midwestern battlegrounds with much smaller minority populations, the president engineered a different formula for victory. In those states, Obama exceeded his national performance among white voters by just enough to repel Romney's challenge. Exit polls show that the unstinting effort by his campaign and its allied super PACs to paint Romney as an insensitive plutocrat detonated with explosive force in those critical states, particularly Ohio, where nearly three in five voters said his agenda would favor the rich. Obama's national numbers precisely approached his winning formula of capturing 80 percent of minorities and 40 percent of whites.
On the other hand, Obama became the first elected president since Andrew Jackson to win a second full term with a smaller share of the popular vote than he took in his first victory. And he faced a resounding repudiation among whites. Four years ago, Obama became the first candidate ever to lose white voters by double digits and win the election; in that campaign, whites preferred John McCain by 12 percentage points. In this election, Obama's deficit among whites swelled to 20 points, according to the exit polls as of 1 a.m. on Wednesday. In winning reelection, Obama captured a smaller share of the white vote than John Kerry did when he lost in 2004.
In that way, the election offered warning signs to each party.
For Democrats, it continued an ominous pattern, dating to the 1960s, that has seen the party lose support among whites in the subsequent elections each time it has held unified control of the White House and Congress.
But the message for Republicans was much more stark. By winning nearly three-fifths of whites, Romney matched the best performance among white voters ever for a Republican challenger--and yet he lost decisively in the Electoral College.
With Romney's defeat, the GOP also faces the reality that none of its presidential nominees since 1988 has exceeded 50.8 percent of the popular vote or 286 Electoral College votes. In essence, by failing to compete more effectively for the growing minority population, Republicans have lowered their ceiling in presidential politics, and left their nominees trying to thread a needle to reach a majority either in the popular or Electoral College vote.
The questions for the country may be even more difficult than those facing either party. Even as Obama won convincingly in the Electoral College, his victory underscored the enduring polarization along ideological, regional, and racial lines: For instance, while about three-fifths of Hispanics and three-fourths of African-Americans who voted said they wanted his health care law maintained or even expanded, nearly three-fifths of whites said they wanted it repealed. The campaign showed the parties to be divided as deeply in the direction they want to take America as at any time since 1980, if not 1964. Yet the election once again showed the nation to be divided extremely closely. How Washington makes progress on the biggest challenges we face while the nation is both deeply and closely divided is the largest question looming after Obama's historic victory.
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