Barack Obama, the post-partisan candidate of hope who became the first black U.S. president, won re-election by overcoming four years of economic discontent with a mix of political populism and electoral math.
Beginning more than a year ago, Obama and his advisers cast the president as a champion of middle-class opportunity pitted against an opposition party more determined to protect preferences for the wealthy.
“After all that we’ve been through together, we can’t give up now,” Obama told a crowd of 18,000 in Madison, Wisconsin, a day ahead of the election as he made his final campaign swing of the year.
Throughout a volatile Republican nominating contest, Obama’s political team never wavered from the view that its eventual opponent would be Romney, a former private equity executive whom they would portray as an out-of-touch embodiment of moneyed privilege and heartless capitalism.
Even before the Republican primary contest ended, as the public was still forming impressions of Romney, Obama and his allies began a campaign to define their opponent.
By summer, they inundated battleground states with commercials featuring layoffs at companies purchased by Romney’s former firm, Bain Capital LLC, as well as his Swiss banks accounts and tax returns showing how he took advantage of breaks not available to most middle-income taxpayers.
Romney didn’t counter with his own aggressive effort to establish an identity with voters as he focused his campaign on turning the election into a referendum on persistent high joblessness. The unemployment rate under Obama exceeded 8 percent for 43 months, the longest period of such high joblessness since the start of monthly records in 1948.
The negative tone of the campaign on both sides was reflected in their advertising. Between April, when Romney clinched his primary victory, and Oct. 28, nearly nine in 10 of all campaign ads — 87 percent — were negative, according to New York based Kantar Media’s CMAG.
The incumbent started the campaign with an advantage on the electoral map. The ethnic composition of eligible voters shifted in favor of Obama in many critical states since his first election in 2008.
The portion of adult citizens who are members of racial or ethnic minority groups grew by 4 percentage points in Nevada, by 3 percentage points in Virginia, by 2 percentage points in Florida and by 1 percentage point in Ohio and Iowa between 2008 and 2011, according to an analysis of Census data by William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
That put states with more electoral votes in the safely Democratic column than in the safely Republican one, and left Romney with fewer potential paths to the 270 electoral votes needed to win election.
Obama’s team took advantage by organizing to motivate supporters in the remaining states considered electoral battlegrounds. In some cases, Obama’s campaign never disbanded its 2008 efforts and early in the 2012 contest it built more field offices and hired professional staff.
By Election Day, the Obama team claimed to have registered 1.8 million new voters in the battleground states, nearly double the number of new voters the campaign registered four years earlier. By last weekend, 28 percent of those new voters had cast ballots through early voting, the campaign said.
“Don’t wait” to vote, Obama urged a mostly black crowd of 13,500 voters packed into Cincinnati’s Fifth Third Arena Nov. 4.
“Who do you trust?” the president asked the crowd, which shouted back “You!” Saying he knows what “real change” is, Obama added: “I delivered it; I’ve got the scars to prove it.”
The geography of the economic recovery also favored the president in the eight swing states that received the most attention from the two campaigns: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Obama Wins Re-election With Defeat of Romney in Crucial States Nevada, New Hampshire, Virginia and Wisconsin.
In five of those states, joblessness was lower than the national average by September, the most recent month for which state-level unemployment data is available.
In Ohio, a state won by every Republican who’s claimed the White House, unemployment dropped to 7.0 percent by September.
The Obama campaign promoted the comeback of the auto industry, which was boosted by a government bailout the president backed.
One in eight Ohio jobs is directly or indirectly tied to the auto industry, according to a 2010 report by the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
And while Romney was traveling in Europe, $1.2 million worth of attack ads played 1,947 times on Ohio TV stations.
The Obama campaign hammered relentlessly at Romney’s opposition to the federal bailout, memorialized in a November 2008 New York Times opinion article the Republican candidate authored entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
A tough anti-immigration stance Romney took in the Obama Wins Re-election With Defeat of Romney in Crucial States Republican primaries also contributed to lopsided support for Obama among Latino voters.
As the national economy improved during the election year, it weakened the central theme of Romney’s campaign. A slowdown in job growth in the last spring and early summer kept Romney close; hiring accelerated again as the election approached.
The 7.9 percent October unemployment rate was a full percentage point lower than a year earlier, the biggest 12-month improvement in joblessness over the period during any election year since 1948 except President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election, when unemployment dropped 1.4 percentage points.
The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index surged from 61.3 in August to 72.2 in October, showing consumers in the most optimistic mood since February 2008. Through Nov. 5, the benchmark Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index was up more than 12 percent for the year and more than 66 percent since Obama took office in January 2009.