US election: A vote for the status quo

President Obama acknowledging the crowds at his victory speech in Chicago

After the longest and most expensive election campaign any democracy has ever seen, President Barack Obama was re-elected, albeit by a narrower margin than he received four years ago.

Despite America's weak economy, high unemployment and partisan rancour, voters returned incumbents to office in the White House and Congress, kept the same the balance of party power in Congress, and squarely embraced the status quo.

President Obama won re-election with unemployment at 7.9% - the highest any incumbent seeking re-election has faced since Franklin D Roosevelt.

And no incumbent since Roosevelt has held onto office amidst such a bad economy - not Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter or George Bush Sr.

Bucking the tides of history, however, is not the same as earning the kind of mandate that will intimidate the opposition party.

The final popular vote is not in yet, but it appears Mr Obama will have just a minute margin over Mr Romney.

The president will again face a Republican House of Representatives, though he will have a few more Democratic senators to help him.

Barack Obama
Mitt Romney
  • California 55
  • Colorado 9
  • Connecticut 7
  • District of Colombria 3
  • Delaware 3
  • Florida 29
  • Hawaii 4
  • Iowa 6
  • Illinois 20
  • Massachusetts 11
  • Maryland 10
  • Maine 4
  • Michigan 16
  • Minnesota 10
  • Nebraska 0
  • New Hampshire 4
  • New Jersey 14
  • New Mexico 5
  • Nevada 6
  • New York 29
  • Ohio 18
  • Oregon 7
  • Pennsylvania 20
  • Rhode Island 4
  • Virginia 13
  • Vermont 3
  • Washington 12
  • Wisconsin 10
  • Alaska 3
  • Alabama 9
  • Arkansas 6
  • Arizona 11
  • Georgia 16
  • Idaho 4
  • Indiana 11
  • Kansas 6
  • Kentucky 8
  • Louisiana 8
  • Maine 0
  • Missouri 10
  • Mississippi 6
  • Montana 3
  • North Carolina 15
  • North Dakota 3
  • Nebraska 5
  • Oklahoma 7
  • South Carolina 9
  • South Dakota 3
  • Tennessee 11
  • Texas 38
  • Utah 6
  • West Virginia 5
  • Wyoming 3

Gridlock and intense partisanship may well be part of the status quo that endures in President Obama's second term.

That will depend partly on how the Republicans in Congress read the election results.

Will they see a weakened president, who squeaked through, and thus carry on with their aggressive, uncompromising opposition?

Or will Republicans be more concerned with their own losses and steer toward a more traditional, conciliatory and co-operative posture in Congress?

Their internal battles between party factions will be as intense as the campaign that just finished.

The Obama White House faces a similar strategic choice, but with a more united party behind him.

A "fiscal cliff" is looming - a difficult coincidence of expiring tax breaks and federal spending cuts.

Will the president spend his freshly-earned political capital trying to navigate a grand compromise to avoid the "fiscal cliff" and work for negotiated, bi-partisan legislation to govern the country's debt, deficit and spending laws over the next several years?

A delighted Obama supporter watches the results in New York

Or will the White House take a more piecemeal approach, negotiating something small-bore to deal with the "fiscal cliff" elements, but not a grander fiscal blueprint?

A second term does ensure that the hallmark achievement of Mr Obama's first term - Obamacare - will not be repealed.

To the contrary, the president will have four years to tinker with the programme, improve it and institutionalise it.

The success of his healthcare reform programme may not have been an obvious asset in the 2012 campaign, but it is likely to be an enduring accomplishment of his presidency.

Mr Obama will also have the opportunity to influence the Supreme Court long after he leaves office.

The key there is Justice Anthony Kennedy, 75, a Republican appointee who has been the key swing vote on the court. If Justice Kennedy retires, Mr Obama will be able to make an appointment that could give liberals - or at least judges appointed by Democrats - a majority on the court for a decade or more.

Start Quote

The negativity and lying that marked this campaign wasn't a new low for American politics. It was a very old-style low, but with new volume”

End Quote
Foreign challenges

It is unlikely there will be any major course changes on foreign policy. Anti-terrorism will remain the highest of priorities, the military draw-down in Afghanistan will continue, and there are no indications of a more interventionist policy in Syria.

Barring a strike by Israel on Iran, the US seems set to continue its policy of sanctions and international pressure.

The fate of other issues potentially high on Mr Obama's second term agenda is more unpredictable.

The administration could well make the contentious issues of immigration reform, climate change and financial regulation priorities, for example.

And Republicans could fight Democratic initiatives with all their might.

"There's nothing in the closeness of the popular vote or the minimal change in House seats that would suggest the Republicans will feel any need to alter their oppositional stance," said Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina.

Or they could change course and join hands.

If there is any impetus for a spasm of Republican bipartisanship, it could come from a reading of the exit polls and demographic trends.

Women once again voted heavily for Mr Obama by a margin of 55% to 43%. The female tilt toward the Democrats is now deeply etched in presidential elections.

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan campaigning together with fireworks going off behind them They fought a hard campaign, but there were no fireworks on the night

Non-white voters broke for Mr Obama overwhelmingly. And that population is growing by roughly 2% every four years; the white population is shrinking by roughly 2% every four years.

"The demographics race we're losing badly," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told The Washington Post this summer, in a moment of candour. "We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long-term," he said.

Republican shift to right

The Republican Party has deep and emotional divisions, as the Democrats did throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

The Tea Party might have lost some supporters in the House, but they remain potent in the party's primaries, driving the Republicans to the right. The few remaining self-described moderate Republicans have left the Senate, so that centrist pull is gone.

Start Quote

No-one is fair to President Obama... But his innate ability justifies that high standard”

End Quote David Brooks Columnist

Republicans are not without advantages. They remain the party of business and raise more money than Democrats.

And Republicans again did better with white voters - the biggest block on the board. They have an attractive, younger group of politicians with some national reputation, led by Mitt Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan.

As for Mr Romney, his campaign was methodically organised and well-financed, but he never quite overcame the perception that he was an opportunist without principled political spine.

His own spokesman seemed to prove that point after the primaries, where Mr Romney ran as a hard conservative.

"Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign," Eric Fehrnstrom said. "Everything changes. It's almost like an etch-a-sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again."

The etch-a-sketching didn't work. The image of Mr Romney as an extremely wealthy man out of touch with real life in America hardened after a recording emerged of him saying 47% of Americans were, in essence, freeloaders.

On election day, the 72% of voters who earn less than $100,000 a year (£60,000) decisively rejected Mr Romney.

Obama at a campaign rally in Denver in August 2012, with a big banner saying "women's health security" Obama will get a chance to defend, even tinker with, his healthcare programme

His ads and his stump speech were infamous - even by the low standards of modern American campaigns - for stretching, or ignoring, the truth. "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers," said Neil Newhouse, a Romney pollster. They didn't.

Dollar-fuelled politics

Tough campaigns lead to calls for tough political reforms. And 2012 was a very tough campaign, partly because of its length and the money involved - an estimated $2.6bn (£1.6bn) - mostly spent on TV ads.

Within days of the 2010 mid-term elections, presidential campaigns commenced.

Then an important Supreme Court removed almost all remaining limits on campaign fundraising and spending. Voters were bombarded by TV ads, robo-calls and social media messages, for months and months.

The tenor and tone of political propaganda this year fit the early years of the country, when parties and partisans controlled the newspapers and pamphleteers.

Start Quote

Free of the burden of facing re-election, Mr Obama could be a very different leader in his second term”

End Quote

The negativity and lying that marked this campaign was not a new low for American politics. It was a very old-style low, but with new volume, thanks to new technology - and billions of dollars.

There will certainly be a move for election reform. It will be interesting to see if President Obama leads that effort.

In 2008, Mr Obama was something of a Rorschach test for his supporters - a vessel for hopes, ideals and aspirations. His election as America's first black president was an emotional, prideful moment for the country.

But his first term was dogged by the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression.

Healthcare reform may well be the most consequential legislative action since the Great Society in the 1960s. But voters remain divided over it.

Mr Obama's Republican opponents fought him every step. Throughout the campaign year, Mr Obama appeared to lack the stature his accomplishments might seem to demand.

"No-one is fair to President Obama," the conservative columnist David Brooks wrote last week.

"People grade him against tougher standards than any other politician. But his innate ability justifies that high standard," he said.

Tested and tempered by four years in office, the worst of the economic crisis behind him, and free of the burden of facing re-election, Mr Obama could be a very different leader in his second term.

But the Washington he must operate in is very much unchanged by the results of the 2012 elections.


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US Presidential Election 2012


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  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Let's hope the Republicans don't learn. If they keep trtying to appeal to the crazy right and male,white supremacist vote, they stay ourt of power and we stay safer :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Glad Obama won, but he was there for the taking if the Republicans had stood on a more moderate platform. It's ironic that the Tea Party - which says above all else it wants to change the status quo (through tax cuts, smaller govt etc) - perpetuates it by making the Republicans so right wing and barmy to moderates that they're unelectable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    I think this sums it up;

    "The demographics race we're losing badly," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told The Washington Post this summer, in a moment of candour. "We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long-term," he said.

    The Republicans have lost touch with the people and have not moved on with the times, let us hope they have learned the lessen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Wow, more hype than and X-Factor Judges Fight! I wonder, did the BBC's 'analysts' actually believe that it was "too close to call" or were they just all aboard the ratings express?

    $2.6bn on campaigning alone! That is the most sickening figure of all in this 'race'!

    Wouldn't $2.6bn do a lot more for say, those in New Orleans still homeless 7 years after Katrina?

    Absolutely disgusting!

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Gerrymandering by the GOP has shaped the Lower House to be less representative, given the popular vote looks to have gone to Obama. But the spin is already that this is a GOP mandate for Washington, i.e. more gridlock. The GOP can maintain this, but ultimately they will suffer as more non-TeaParty members reject any compromise, potentially crippling the US economy. Obama has the higher mandate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Well, thank god for that, if he hadn't been re-elected then no doubt America would be engaged in another middle eastern war before too long, wasting money and lives to 'prove a point'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    @ 8.Guy
    If you look at the way votes were cast, it was very close but our electoral systems don't take that into account. What a wonderful world of democracy we live in :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    30 Minutes ago
    If only the uk population was so interested in voting, no way would anyone wait more than 5 mins to vote never mind hours

    UK turnout at last election - 65%.
    US turnout 60%

    more a case of being better organised so no one has to wait in queues

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Well not all Americans are stupid!

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Congratulations President Obama. While I have doubts about either candidates to fix the economy, the world will be safer place with Obama presidency than a GOP-lead government (GOP's problem wasn't even all Romney's fault).

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    The Repbs now have 2 choices:
    Co-operate and work together with Dems to fix the US's problems or undermine the Dems and make them out to be incompetent and win favour.
    If they choose the former, they will gain more respect from non-Repbs which they can use to lure more swing-votes their way for future elections & the last time they tried the latter (the last 2-4 years), it didn't work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    If the Republicans don't shift their electoral base then they are on the final leg of the extinction home run, all courtesy of demographic change. Walk around Tucson Arizona, or even midwest cities and that change is all too apparent.If you expect an electorate of Hispanics and Latinos to 'buy' policies such as 'self deportation' think again.I wonder if the party will schism in the next decade?

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I watched the film A Time To Kill last night, it was a brilliant film, and waking up this morning to find that Mr Obama has been re-elected I can't help but think justice has been served, especially when you look at the map and see all those southern states voted for the other guy. Oh how the wheel turns

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    The white population isn't shrinking 2% every four years. Its not shrinking at all. Its just achieved zero population growth (or close to it). Its SHARE of the population may be shrinking, but not its absolute numbers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    We all breath a collective sigh of relief that the most like-able candidate in both his manner and his policies has won.

    Startling to think that a guy with such outdated views on women's rights, a reported tax dodger and someone who changed his own views on abortion to pander to religious fundamentalist right-wing voters, nearly became president in this day and age.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    looooserrs! another 4 years thanks very much!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Congratulations Mr. President!

    Please focus on clearing the mess in the markets, economy, banks, businesses and middle (muddle) East and of course Afghanistan!

    That seems a tall order but you have another four years (what the heck!)!

    Consolidation in the US may just possibly shake up the European brethren from their cozy tinkering with their economies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Congratulations to Obama!

    I fail to understand all those polls which called it as a close one! It is almost by a margin of 100. This is nothing but a thrashing!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Congratulations America, you did the right thing (on balance).

    The Republican party really does need to take a long hard look at itself. It needs to broaden it's appeal and shift back towards the centre ground. Alienating 47% of your potential voters does not help! It should start by choosing credible candidates that voters can identify with.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    The world remains safe (-ish) for another 4 years


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