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Barack Obama's Recipe for Electoral Success

U.S. President Barack Obama smiles while celebrating his re-election during his election night rally in Chicago (REUTERS/Jim Bourg).

After a hard-fought presidential campaign, President Obama was reelected with a narrow margin in the popular vote but a sizeable win in the Electoral College. Nearly every swing state fell into his column, and it appears that Mitt Romney took back only two states (Indiana and North Carolina) that Obama had seized in 2008. Defying the predictions of a year ago, Democrats actually gained in the Senate, but they did not come close to regaining control of the House. So divided government continues for at least two more years.

Obama won with a massive outpouring of votes from the core of his coalition—young adults, minorities, unmarried women, and lower income families. Despite numerous indications to the contrary during the campaign, voters under 30 constituted a slightly higher percentage of the electorate than they did in 2008. So did Latinos, who went for Obama by an overwhelming margin of 71 to 24 percent. White voters represented 72 percent of the electorate, down from 74 percent in 2008. The demographic shift continues its inexorable grind.

In several respects, the winning Obama coalition was narrower than it was four years ago. The president’s share of the white vote was down from 43 to 39 percent. He was supported by 56 percent of moderates, down from 60 percent, and by 45 percent of Independents, down from 52 percent. While the party composition of the electorate was virtually unchanged, the liberal share rose from 22 to 25 percent, enabling Obama to overcome a drop in support among conservatives. And while the president’s share of the vote from households making $50 thousand or less held steady at 60 percent, his support among middle income households ($50 to 100 thousand) fell from 49 to 46 percent, and among households making more than $100 thousand, from 49 to 44 percent.

In his victory speech last night, Obama listed a number of important goals for his second term—restoring fiscal stability, reforming the tax code, enacting comprehensive immigration reform, and achieving energy security. It remains to be seen whether a divisive election in a divided America has laid the foundation for progress in these areas. Obama believes that despite these differences, we are still “One America.” However that may be, it will take the skills of a statesman to forge the agreements we will need to move the country forward.

  • William A. Galston holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a senior fellow. A former policy advisor to President Clinton and presidential candidates, Galston is an expert on domestic policy, political campaigns, and elections. His current research focuses on designing a new social contract and the implications of political polarization.

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