President Barack Obama's re-election bid had its ups and downs. But in the end, five key factors helped propel Mr. Obama to a historic win: changing demographics, sharp campaign tactics, an improving economy, a flawed opponent and a wide election night path to victory.
President Obama handily won the minority vote
In 2008, candidate Barack Obama's Achilles' heel was white voters. Mr. Obama lost this demographic – which represented 74 per cent of the electorate – to Senator John McCain by 12 percentage points (55 to 43). He lost it again this time around, but with two key differences: He performed better than expected with working class white voters in Midwest states like Ohio – in large part because of his support for the auto bailout; and he hit the very minimum percentage he needed to reach in terms of the white electorate – 40 per cent of the white vote.
But it got better for President Obama. The proportion of the electorate represented by white voters dropped in 2012 from 74 per cent to 72 per cent. And the proportion of electorate represented by minorities – Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans grew from 26 per cent to 28 per cent. The minority vote turned out to back President Obama in droves on Tuesday night.
"The president captured an overwhelming 80 per cent 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," writes the National Journal's Ronald Brownstein.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, had a lower share of the Latino vote than both Mr. McCain in 2008 and president George W. Bush in 2004, as pointed out by POLITICO's Maggie Haberman.
The American electorate will continue to change – posing a huge challenge to Republicans, who cannot afford to run another presidential campaign without appealing to minority voters and peeling away support from the Democratic Party.
President Obama was lifted by an improving economic picture
It was the economy, after all.
Mitt Romney's prosecution of the Obama presidency as a failed "government-centred" approach to creating jobs and growing the economy ran in to the headwinds of an improving economic picture and a slight change in mood among many Americans.
No one in America is happy with an unemployment rate currently at 7.9 per cent. But the point is that it dropped below 8 per cent in October, weeks before the presidential vote – after 40-plus months above that marker – and around a time when polls showed that an increasing number of Americans expected that the economy would improve over the next 12 months.
That was the finding of a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in early September – 42 per cent of those surveyed felt the economy would improve, a 15-point increase from July.
The overall picture remained that more Americans were disappointed in Mr. Obama's handling of the economy and the speed of the recovery – but mixed in was a growing expectation of better days to come.
In battleground states like Ohio and Iowa, the headwinds were even stronger for Mr. Romney: The unemployment rate was already below the national average and had held steady for months.
President Obama exploited the widest path to an election night win
Associated Press has this nifty election night interactive that allows you to shade in states in Mr. Obama's column or Mr. Romney's column.
If you shade in all the election night results, but leave Ohio, Virginia and Florida grey – in other words, you don't assign those states to either candidate – guess what? Mr. Obama still wins: 272 to 206, crossing the 270 threshold to win the Electoral College.
The bottom line going in to election night is that Mr. Romney had the most difficult path to victory. Winning just one of Florida, Virginia or Ohio would have still made his night an uphill climb. As of now, Mr. Obama has won Ohio and Virginia while Florida is too close to call.
But Mr. Obama ran the board on the other battleground states to the point that Ohio, Florida and Virginia did not matter in terms of the electoral tally.
Winning all of those states would have not helped Mr. Romney win the presidency. In fact, President Obama would have won 272-266.
President Obama out-campaigned Romney
While Mr. Romney was battling his rivals for the Republican leadership nomination, Mr. Obama was already touting the rescue of the American auto industry – a key achievement that would become a pillar of his re-election campaign.
What it did was force Mr. Romney on the defensive and to explain his New York Times op-ed – with the headline Let Detroit Go Bankrupt – that was interpreted as harsh medicine for the auto industry at a time when it needed help. The issue resonated beyond Michigan – the home of the auto industry. Voters in neighbouring states, where jobs were often tied to the American auto industry, took notice.
For all the talk about Mr. Obama being out-done in the fundraising department, the fact is that Mr. Obama, his party and Super PACs raised about the same amount as Mr. Romney, his party and Super PACs – just over a billion dollars for each campaign and its supporters. The difference: Mr. Obama spent a lot of money early on in the campaign to organize their 'ground game' to register voters and deliver them on voting day, and to pay for ads attacking Mr. Romney.
"They defined their opponent early, attacking Mitt Romney's own basis for running – his supposed success as a businessman good at turning around companies," said Democratic strategist Linda Moore Forbes, in her Winning the Week blog post for the Globe on the eve of the vote.
"The Obama campaign ran ads this spring showing blue-collar workers describing Romney as the person who drove their companies into the ground and caused them to lose their jobs, while Romney and Bain [Capital] made huge profits," she added.
Attacks ads were just part of the Mr. Obama team's early campaigning advantage. Mr. Obama used the office of the presidency to swoop in to Afghanistan in May on the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, he ordered a halt to deportations of illegal immigrants – mostly Latino – brought to the U.S. as children, and with less than a week before voting day he toured the Hurricane Sandy-affected areas in New Jersey. The president benefitted from being the incumbent.
Also, President Obama will need to find a way to say thanks to Bill Clinton – the happy warrior, who lifted the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., with a stellar speech, and logged thousands of kilometres telling voters that Mr. Obama was, in fact, really a lot like him and that voters ought to trust him and be patient.
President Obama faced an opponent who waited too long to correct a tactical error
The morning-after voting day finds one campaign plagued with a series of 'what if' questions.
The Republican party will conduct its own post-mortem of the Mitt Romney candidacy. But most observers agree that Mr. Romney's pivot to the centre in the closing stages of the presidential campaign was effective – but too late in the game.
What if Mr. Romney had pivoted earlier in the game – say, at the Republican National Convention in late August?
Mr. Romney sold himself to Republicans as a "severely conservative" candidate during the leadership contest and was criticized for taking hardline positions. In the closing stage of the presidential campaign, Moderate Mitt re-emerged to the point that the lines between the two candidates began to blur.
His positions on a series of issues – Obamacare, Wall Street regulation, contraception and abortion, cutting taxes and illegal immigration – began to soften or shift.
The candidate branded by the Obama campaign as a "pioneer" in outsourcing American jobs and an "extreme" candidate who would do the Tea Party's bidding was trying to rebrand himself. It worked for a while – as his support among women started to climb. But it did not last.
Mittmentum – as his supporters called Mr. Romney's post-presidential debate surge – seemed to stall just before Hurricane Sandy hit the U.S. northeast coast. A longer time frame to establish Mr. Romney as a moderate might have helped him win the White House. Instead, a tactical error – waiting too long to pivot – helped Mr. Obama.