So now we know. After one of the closest and hardest fought political campaigns in American history Barack Obama has been re-elected as President of the United States. In the national popular vote, as the pollsters forecast, the two candidates were virtually neck and neck, with Obama narrowly ahead of his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, by 50.1 percentage points to 48.4 points.
In the Electoral College it was a different story, with Obama leading Romney by 303 votes to 206, a margin that will rise to 332-206 if, as seems likely, Florida is also called for the President. This flattering margin of victory reflects the fact that, as most political pundits predicted, Obama carried almost all the key battleground states – Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire and Virginia. Romney succeeded in recapturing just two states lost by John McCain in 2008 – Indiana and North Carolina. To add to a night of Republican woes Obama’s Democrats also retained control of the United States Senate by a margin of 51-44 seats with three results outstanding, in Montana, Nevada and North Dakota. The Grand Old Party did, however, as expected, retain control of the U.S. House of Representatives by a margin of 227-175 seats with 33 contests still in the balance.
In 2008 Obama’s victory was historic by virtue of the fact that he became the first African American to be elected as President of the United States. In 2012 his re-election will enter the record books for other reasons, making him the first incumbent in modern times to be re-elected with a national unemployment rate of 7.9 per cent. Not since the days of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s has an occupant of the White House triumphed under such depressing economic conditions. Admittedly, Obama can claim things have got better, with unemployment down from the 9.9 per cent peak when he took office. Nonetheless, for the Republicans 2012 is likely to be seen as a year of wasted opportunity.
So why did things go wrong for the Republican campaign? Party diehards will cite the intervention of Hurricane Sandy. For two to three days in the closing weeks of the campaign the state of emergency that resulted in the wake of the super storm enabled Obama to showcase his qualities as a national leader, whilst Romney was marginalized in press and television coverage. There may be a degree of truth in this claim. At the same time Romney’s defeat can be attributed to other factors than the force of nature.
President Obama’s admiration for Abraham Lincoln is well known. In 1864 when Lincoln was running for re-election in the midst of the Civil War he famously advised his fellow Americans ‘not to change horses in midstream’. It may be that during the current economic crisis voters came to the same conclusion about Obama, deciding that it was better to stick with the President they know than risk the untested alternative offered by Romney.
The Republican also suffered from self-inflicted weaknesses. Despite his impressive performance in the first presidential debate Romney may be best remembered for a series of perceived gaffes during the course of the campaign. Remarks about the ‘binders’ of women he appointed to office as Governor of Massachusetts and the likelihood that 47 per cent of voters would always vote for Obama, because of their financial dependency on the federal government, may have alienated key groups of undecided voters. Earlier comments that the car industry in Detroit, Michigan, should be allowed to go bankrupt rather than receive a federal bailout also didn’t help.
The focus of attention on the presidential contest has distracted attention from arguably the most disappointing outcome of the evening for the Grand Old Party, its failure to regain control of the United States Senate. Again, Republican errors were at least partly to blame. In Indiana and Missouri controversial and offensive remarks by Republican challengers about women who were victims of rape contributed to electoral defeats in contests they might otherwise have won.
Perhaps the most worrying consideration for the Republican post-election inquest is the on-going impact of demographic change. Early exit polls suggest that although white Americans favored Romney the young, African Americans and Latino voters turned out in impressive numbers for Obama. It has long been recognized that over the course of the next two or three decades the United States will experience major demographic change as a result of the nation’s growing ethnic minority groups. By 2042, if not earlier, the Census Bureau has predicted that for the first time white Americans will no longer constitute a majority of the population. If the Republican Party cannot succeed in broadening its appeal it faces the long-term prospect of electoral oblivion.
But that is an issue for the future. For now what matters is that Obama has been re-elected as President. Despite the images of jubilant Democratic supporters his victory this time round has not been marked by the same sense of euphoria that prevailed in 2008. That is fitting, for major challenges lie ahead for the President during his second term of office. Abroad he faces the problems of an on-going conflict in Afghanistan, continuing political instability in the Middle East and the economic and political impact of the rise of China as a global power. At home unemployment remains stubbornly high and the national debt, now some $16 trillion, continues to rise. Tough decisions lie ahead and, if his first term of office is anything to go by, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives are unlikely to cooperate with the President in implementing his preferred solutions. Nonetheless, Obama can take comfort in one thought. ‘The problems of victory’, as Churchill once observed, are always ‘more agreeable than those of defeat’, albeit ‘no less difficult’.