Barack Obama wasn’t supposed to win re-election. The hope was gone, critics said, evaporated by endless partisan gridlock in Washington and a jobless rate that hovered above 8 percent for much of his first term.
And yet, a relentlessly focused campaign, a flicker of economic good news – witnessed in rebounding consumer confidence – and a prolonged assault on his opponent persuaded voters to give the Democrat who made history in his 2008 election another four years in office.
In campaign stops across battleground states, Obama pressed for patience, arguing that he’d prevented an economic collapse and that under his stewardship the economy was beginning to recover. In every speech, he laid siege to his Republican rival, cautioning that Mitt Romney would return the United States to the same failed policies that plunged the economy into a downward spiral.
And he was aided by an experienced campaign operation that he called “the best ever” in his acceptance speech Wednesday morning. Operatives succeeded early in determining which states would make up the election map, and the fight was waged primarily in those states, strategists said.
Obama thanked them in person Wednesday, dropping by his campaign headquarters in Chicago before returning to the business of governing in Washington. He walked in to a standing ovation; staffers and volunteers climbed on top of desks to get a look at him, a source in the room said.
A survey of voters as they left polling places Tuesday showed six in 10 voters said the economy is the top issue facing the nation, with unemployment and rising prices hitting voters hard. But about half of voters said former President George W. Bush was more responsible for the economic downtown challenges than Obama, according to preliminary results of an exit poll conducted for The Associated Press.
In the end, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, failed to convince enough voters he was on their side – a storyline the Obama campaign pursued with a single-minded focus before Romney had even clinched his party’s nomination.
The portrait of Romney that emerged was of an elite executive who led a private equity firm that drove jobs overseas and cut employment in the United States.
“One thing they’ve done well is trash Mitt Romney,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican political consultant who co-founded a polling firm. “They’ve done a stellar job running an exceedingly personal campaign against Mitt Romney. It’s been challenging for Romney to overcome.”
Obama’s campaign also succeeded in determining early which states would make up the election map, strategists said. Those included the battleground states of Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado and Nevada.
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said the president succeeded in rebuilding a similar coalition to the one he had in 2008 after focusing on several key states across the nation.
“We wanted to chart multiple paths to victory, a Southern route, a Midwestern route, a Western route. I think it will bear out that it was a smart strategy to take those multiple routes to victory because you’re seeing these states tonight – many are very tight,” he said late Tuesday.
Democratic strategist Tad Devine said Romney made a “huge mistake” in letting Obama define the map and in waiting until the last minute to campaign in Pennsylvania and Minnesota. “Some of the places (Romney) wandered into in the final days, he should have been in at the front end,” he said.
And Democrats say Obama was able, despite the sluggish economy, to point to achievements. He trumpeted success at preventing the economy from hitting bottom with a stimulus plan that plowed government dollars into hiring. He achieved long-sought health care legislation, enacted a firewall to prevent a relapse of the Wall Street fiasco, backed a federal bailout to save auto industry jobs, ended the war in Iraq and oversaw the raid that ended in the death of Osama bin Laden.
“Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,” Vice President Joe Biden suggested as an Obama campaign bumper sticker. “That about sums it up, man.”
At the close of the election, Obama was boosted by a crisis beyond any candidate’s control. As the massive storm Sandy barreled up the East Coast, Obama suspended his campaign appearances to tend to the emergency response, projecting an air of confidence and compassion and avoiding the criticism that plagued former President George W. Bush in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
And as Obama toured the hard-hit New Jersey coast with the state’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, he drew effusive praise from Christie, a rising Republican star and sharp-tongued Obama critic who was a key surrogate for Romney, just a week earlier assailing Obama’s leadership skills.
To Fox News, Christie said, “He’s done, as far as I’m concerned, a great job for New Jersey.”
Obama earned similar high marks among voters for his handling of foreign policy. Romney sought to raise questions about Obama’s handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, but that early criticism boomeranged when he assailed the administration’s response before it was known that the U.S. ambassador had been killed.
Obama came into office in 2009 with little foreign policy experience but developed considerable bragging rights, hitting the campaign trail as a commander in chief who could claim he kept his campaign promise: ending an unpopular war in Iraq and winding down the conflict in Afghanistan.
He also boosted his popularity and drew rare bipartisan praise for hunting down leaders of al Qaida, including overseeing the risky operation that captured and killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
Obama’s campaign also was largely a numbers game, and the nation’s rapidly changing demographics played a major role in his victory. Population increases in key battleground states were largely among Democratic constituencies, including African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics – a key part of Obama’s base and a focus of his campaign. In just the past four years, African-American and Hispanic voter registration nearly doubled in the swing states of Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Virginia and Florida.
That coalition, though sometimes disenchanted by his presidency, retained pride with the historic nature of electing the country’s first African-American president.
With polls over the summer suggesting white voters were leaning Republican by a sizable margin, Obama’s campaign dispatched surrogates like the vice president to stem the loss by courting the white, working-class voters Obama had a harder time reaching.
The campaign also relied heavily on former President Bill Clinton to reach that voting bloc. Obama gave Clinton a starring role at his convention and dubbed him the “Secretary of Explaining Things” after Clinton delivered a dazzlingly powerful endorsement for a second Obama term.
In addition, Obama benefitted from the fact he’d done it before: He won in 2008 in part because he built the most comprehensive political organization that some states had ever seen – opening scores of offices, even in Republican-leaning or sparsely populated regions, dispatching paid staffers and recruiting thousands of volunteers.
And after that election, the campaign never left. Through Organizing for America, an arm of the Democratic National Committee, Obama maintained ties in swing states, continuing to hold events and build support.
By contrast, Romney clinched his party’s nomination this past spring after a long primary battle, leaving him far less time to build up an organization.
And although powerful outside groups backing Romney raised more money, Obama’s campaign held its own, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Obama’s campaign still managed to raised $630 million as of mid-October, significantly more than Romney’s $390 million.
Obama returned late Monday night to Iowa, the battleground state he credits with starting it all: His voice hoarse, his eyes wet from emotion or the cold, he asked the crowd to keep the faith, acknowledging “sometimes it’s been hard. Sometimes it’s been frustrating.”
But, he added, “I’m not ready to give up on the fight. I’ve got a lot more fight left in me.”