It is too easy to conclude, from Tuesday night's contest, that the United States remains divided neatly down the middle, locked in a tight ideological clinch and fissured with near-irreconcilable divisions – political, geographical, racial, economic.
It might look that way. But what happened Tuesday night showed the world not that the United States is subject to its old divisions of the 20th century; rather, what created the formula for Barack Obama's second term was an emerging America that has collided sharply with the old one.
What drove Mr. Obama to victory, against the headwinds of economic devastation and the deep disappointment of many of his 2008 supporters, was the emergence of a new generation of voter, one that came of age after the Cold War, the civil-rights struggle and the post-1960s culture wars and liberation struggles had already been absorbed into the fabric of U.S. history. These voters are less white, less male, less loyal to parties, less rigidly divided between North and South and less economically secure than those who came before.
This new electoral geometry will cause the next four years to produce dramatic changes to America's political centre of gravity and to its relationship to the wider world, even if it has changed little in this election and may perpetuate the political deadlock in Washington that will prevent substantial domestic-policy changes.
Twelve years ago, the Republican Party attempted to make a grasp for these new voters, as George W. Bush pitched a message to Hispanics and younger white-collar voters in his 2000 campaign. But in the years since Mr. Bush left office in 2008, Republicans have retreated to the white, rural and suburban, blue-collar southern and senior-citizen voting foundation that Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan carved out a generation ago.
That formula has been yielding diminishing results for Republican candidates. Even though the GOP has maintained about the same share of the white vote since the 1980s, this has gone from a victory margin of eight percentage points for George H. W. Bush in 1988 to 2.5 percentage points for his son in 2004 – and to an absolute loss in 2008.
To understand fully the change that has quietly occurred beneath the familiar red-and-blue patterns of this election, consider the factors that did not become big issues.
Notably, there was little voter interest in Mr. Obama's skin colour and Mr. Romney's minority religion. For the first time in American history, neither major presidential candidate was a white Protestant – and while it was possible for pollsters to measure some effects of the candidates' religion and race among certain pockets of voters, these did not become mainstream or decisive issues, as they did when the Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, and as they would have done if a black man had been on the ballot even 20 years ago.
And despite obsessions with abortion, immigration and homosexuality in the second ranks of the Republican Party during the primaries, these issues never emerged as decisive electoral issues in any major constituency. In fact, Republican candidates who dared broach these issues – such as Indiana senate candidate Richard Mourdock and Missouri candidate Todd Akin, both of whom suggested that rape victims should be denied abortions – were roundly defeated on Tuesday.
There were signs of wider losses among cultural conservatives and Tea Party candidates, signalling that Mr. Romney's loss may have been a reflection of the fact that the culture war is not a major factor any more. For the new generation of voters, these are not looming controversies but rather part of the backdrop of daily life. That half a dozen states have made same-sex marriage legal without it becoming a campaign issue indicates that Americans have absorbed this new reality and moved on to other issues.
If Mr. Obama's historic second-term victory means that he was able to consolidate his party's hold on this new-generation electorate, he may have accomplished for the Democrats what Ronald Reagan did for the Republicans in 1981: a generation-long realignment of core political loyalties.
The first outcome of Mr. Obama's victory will likely be an implosion within the Republican Party, as its factions tear each other apart over the faltering attempt by Mr. Romney – one of the most moderate and centrist of all the Republican leadership candidates – to speak, however awkwardly, to this new electorate. The Tea Party faction of libertarian conservatives will attempt to purge Mr. Romney's moderates, who in turn will blame the ultra-conservatives for having abandoned the new voters and lost the election. It is entirely possible that the Republicans could split in two.
If Mr. Romney is seen as having lost the election despite having held the support of the Republicans' old base, "there will be the beginnings of a proper civil war in the Republican Party – everybody will blame everybody," the veteran GOP strategist Steve Schmidt told the Washington-based National Journal this week. "The conservatives will blame the establishment, and vice versa."
But a larger effect of this epochal change could be a new Democratic hold on power that could see the United States speaking with a different, more securely centrist voice for the better part of a decade.
The influence of this new electorate also allowed Mr. Obama to overcome several serious weaknesses – notably, his looming unpopularity among moderate middle-aged suburban voters who have been devastated by the recession but have seen few rewards from the Democratic President's rescue policies.
This new four-year mandate will give his party a historic opportunity. The economy is likely to recover, the demographics will tilt more sharply away from the old Republican base and, by 2016, older Americans will have had several years of experience with his "Obamacare" national health program and will be unlikely to want to give it up. The next GOP candidate will have to campaign on a very different platform.
Yet it is unlikely that the United States will change dramatically. Mr. Obama's legislative agenda is extremely modest, and even then it is unlikely that any significant legislation could pass through a House of Representatives held by increasingly recalcitrant Republicans. As with Bill Clinton during his second term, the President's historic advantages may be limited to incremental changes, executive orders and supreme-court appointments – the stuff of gradual renovation, not revolutionary transformation.
While an unfettered Barack Obama, freed from worries about a reelection campaign, may be able to speak more boldly on the international stage, he displays little appetite or interest in making bold moves.
His re-election may have fended of a direct confrontation with Iran, or an overt embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both of which were pledged by Mr. Romney. But Mr. Obama's awkward negotiations with China and Russia indicate that foreign policy, too, will be more a matter of gradual adjustment than bold moves.
So from outside, the United States will appear to have changed only slightly. Only if you look under the hood do you begin to see what really changed on Tuesday night.