President Obama waves to supporters after his victory speech at McCormick Place in Chicago. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama made history again.
Four years ago, he became the first African American elected president, riding a wave of hope and promises of change. On Tuesday - with victories in such crucial states as Iowa, Wisconsin and then Ohio - he became the first president since Franklin Roosevelt to win a second term when unemployment was so high and voters so uneasy about the nation's future.
RELATED | Complete race results
PHOTOS | Obama re-elected
MORE PHOTOS | Romney concedes
He achieved that by forging a coalition of America's rising electorate: African Americans, Hispanics and young people from the Millennial generation, plus some whites, especially women. The fact that Republican rival Mitt Romney carried solid majorities of older voters and whites, and that he was preferred by voters on the economic issues that dominated the election, didn't seem to be enough to carry this new day.
Indeed, Romney won the biggest majority of the white vote of any presidential candidate in U.S. history who then failed to win the White House.
Obama's first election in 2008 demonstrated the possibilities of a coalition of this emerging electorate. His re-election shows that coalition is here to stay, says analyst Ruy Teixeira, co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority. "Even in a pretty difficult economy, it's got staying power; it sticks with the incumbent enough to re-elect him."
The changing U.S. electorate split in two Tuesday - not only along lines of political party and ideology but also by race and ethnicity, gender and marital status, region and religion, education and age. The divisions are even sharper than they were four years ago, when Obama attracted broader support, especially among whites.
But this time the contest was much closer in a country that is undergoing tectonic shifts in its demography. "We have never had a more polarized electorate," Republican pollster Whit Ayres says.
If there was one thing that seemed to unite the nation, it was a sense that the stakes were high and the election mattered. Voters stood in lines for hours in South Florida; polling places in some parts of Virginia were held open hours after the scheduled 7 p.m. closing to accommodate waiting voters.
"We're all in this together," Obama said in a tweet he sent just after 11:20 p.m., when the TV networks declared him the winner. "That's how we campaigned, and that's who we are. Thank you. - bo"
The economy swamped every other issue. Six in 10 called it the most important issue in deciding their vote and 15% cited the federal budget deficit, according to surveys of voters as they left polling places. A majority of both sets of voters backed Romney.
So it was a testament to the strength of the president's support that those economic concerns didn't simply settle the election in Romney's favor - although it was a much closer election than his easy victory over Republican John McCain four years ago.
On Obama's side this time: More than nine of 10 African Americans and nearly seven in 10 Hispanics. A solid majority of women and two-thirds of unmarried women. About six in 10 of voters under 30. More than 90% of Democrats and nearly 90% of liberals. More than six in 10 of those who never attend religious services.
On Romney's side: Six of 10 whites and nearly six of 10 seniors. A solid majority of men and of married women, and nearly two-thirds of white men. More than 90% of Republicans and of conservatives. He won high-income voters, evangelical Christians, and those who attend who attend religious services every week or more often.
The debate over the role of government was perhaps the starkest dividing line: Eight in 10 of those who believe "government should do more to solve problems" voted for Obama. An almost equal number of those who believe "the government is doing too many things" voted for Romney.
All that underscores the challenges ahead for governing in what will continue to be a divided government. Republicans were poised to maintain control of the House of Representatives. In the Senate, hopes Republicans once harbored to gain control were dashed as Democrats picked up GOP-held seats in Indiana and Massachusetts.
In some ways, nothing will change in Washington: President Obama facing a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-controlled Senate. Negotiations will instantly redouble over the "fiscal cliff" that looms at year's end, threatening tax hikes and broad spending cuts.
Tuesday's divisions in the electorate will resonate in those debates and others. Demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution notes the battle between older and white voters on one side, younger and minority voters on the other. "That divide, you'll see it every day in the House, and in the House vs. the Senate," he predicts.
Here's a look at some of the new realities of American politics.
Nobody is firmly in charge
Not in the past century has the country gone so long without giving a firm hold on power to one party.
Consider the narrow margins in the presidential race. Since 1920, when women got to vote, there hadn't been more than three elections in a row without a candidate winning the White House by more than 10 points. But in the seven elections since 1984, not a single candidate managed to win by double digits.
Tuesday's election was likely to be the third time in the past four elections that the race was decided by fewer than four points. Before that, only four elections in the past 100 years had been decided by such a narrow edge.
The House and Senate also have been more closely divided over the past two decades that at any point since 1920. In eight of the past nine elections, the minority party was able to garner at least 190 seats in the 435-seat House. In the previous 40 elections, that sort of strong standing for the opposition was the exception, occurring only 13 times.
Not happy, but better
There's no consensus that happy days are here again, but the nation's mood is considerably better than it was four years ago. Then, the nation was spiraling into the fiscal crisis.
In 2008, only 7% said the economy was excellent or good; now that number has tripled. Then, almost half said the economy was poor; now a third say that. Four years ago, only one in five said "things in this country are generally going in the right direction."
Now close to half say things are heading in the right direction; more than nine of 10 of those voters backed Obama.
Even so, one in three voters said they were worse off than four years ago, more than the one in four who said they were better off. For the first time in several elections, the economy as an issue did not work in the Democrat's favor.
Six in 10 called the economy the most important issue influencing their vote, and a majority of them favored Romney. In 2008, 63% named the economy as their main issue, and 53% had backed Obama.
The surveys of voters as they were left selected polling places were conducted for the Associated Press and the TV networks by Edison Research. They were supplemented by phone interviews with those who cast early or absentee ballots.
Hispanics on the rise
Latinos increased their share of the electorate, to 10% from 9% in 2008. They supported Obama even more solidly than they did four years ago, when 67% backed him. This time, 69% did.
Romney's 29% share of the Hispanic vote was lower than that for any Republican presidential candidate since Bob Dole in 1996.
African Americans made up a record 13%; more than nine of 10 backed Obama, the nation's first black president.
Put another way, 72% of the electorate was white, the lowest ever and a stunning drop in just two decades. In 1992, it had stood at 87%.
The rising number of minority voters will challenge the GOP.
"If Romney was going to win, it was by getting a larger and larger share of the white vote," Ayres says. "At some point, you run out of votes to get that way. A larger-and-larger piece of a smaller-and-smaller share of the pie ultimately becomes a losing proposition. The only question is when it becomes a complete non-starter."
"This may be the last 'white' presidential candidate - in the sense of a candidate appealing to only white voters," Frey says of Romney.
White voters still majority
Whites still make up 73% of the electorate, though, and Democratic strategists express concern about the decline in the party's standing with them. Obama's share of the white vote, 43% in 2008, dropped about five percentage points.
"Republicans are the aging party; Democrats are the younger party built around the new demography of the country," says Simon Rosenberg of the NDN, formerly called the New Democratic Network. "You'd much prefer to be where the Democrats are, strategically. But clearly the Democrats have to be concerned about the erosion of white voters."
Obama did well among highly educated white women, and a populist appeal against Romney as a corporate boss helped him hold a share of blue-collar whites in the battleground Midwest, Frey says. But he adds: "You can't just get by on these very small segments of the white population and hope minorities will carry you through, at least in the short term."
Seniors vs. Millennials
Then there's age. Romney was backed by double digits among seniors, those 65 and older, while Obama carried voters under 30 by double digits as well.
Obama had focused on energizing younger voters; many of his campaign rallies took place on college campuses. Even so, he suffered his biggest drop-off among voters 18 to 29 years old.
Those under 30 had backed Democrat John Kerry over George W. Bush in 2004 by 54%-45%, and the Democratic edge jumped to 66% for Obama in 2008.
This time, though, he got about six in 10 votes of these younger voters.
Among younger voters, African Americans and Hispanics slipped slightly in their support; the significant erosion was among whites under 30. In 2008, they had backed Obama by 10 points. This time, they support Romney by eight.
Overall, the country was divided between those under 40 (who supported Obama by double digits) and those over 40 (who supported Romney by nine points).
Super PACs trump parties
The new breed of super PACs and their billionaire backers shaped the presidential race at every point in the campaign.
In the GOP primaries, the groups that allow unlimited contributions from donors enabled Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich to stay in the Republican nomination contest even after disappointing showings in primaries would have forced them out in previous times. Pro-Romney super PACs provided a crucial counterweight to Obama campaign ads in the summer. And they kept Romney competitive in ad spending in the fall.
"These outside groups, essentially acting as shadow campaigns of the candidates, are going to be a dominant part of election campaigning for the foreseeable future," says Anthony Corrado, a campaign-finance expert at Colby College in Maine. "You have party-aligned groups and non-profit organizations essentially approaching these elections as a team sport."
That has undermined the political parties, which face legal limits that the super PACs don't.
"Political parties are laughably anachronistic," says Nathan Daschle, former executive director of the Democratic Governors Association and a founder of ruck.us, an online political engagement organization. "Voters are increasingly behaving like consumers, and modern-day consumers have far less brand loyalty than they did a decade ago."
On that and other aspects of American politics, the times are changing.
(By Susan Page, USA TODAY)