WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney dueled to the end Tuesday as voters battered by years of economic pain and uncertainty decided whether to give Obama four more years or to send him home as the first president in 20 years to be denied a second term.
In early results, big battlegrounds such as Florida, Ohio and Virginia were too close to call.
Romney took Indiana, seizing a state that had gone for Obama four years ago. He also won dependably Republican states across the South and into the Great Plains: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas and West Virginia.
Obama triumphed in Massachusetts, where Romney was governor from 2003 to 2007 and still lives, and Michigan, Romney’s native state, where he was hoping for an upset. He also Wisconsin, the home state of Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan. The president then swept dependably Democratic states from the Northeast to his home state of Illinois.
The election was largely a referendum on Obama and his efforts to revive an economy still struggling to recover from the Great Recession of 2007-2009, the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Six of 10 voters said the economy was the most important issue, well ahead of health care or foreign policy. Three of four voters said the economy remained poor or not so good, according to preliminary exit polls.
Obama touted the economy’s steady progress on his watch; Romney cited stubbornly high unemployment and mounting federal debt as he argued the recovery’s pace was too slow. In the exit polls, slightly more than half said Obama was more in touch with people like them, compared with 44 percent for Romney.
Republicans held their majority in the House of Representatives, according to projections. All 435 voting seats were up Tuesday.
Also being decided Tuesday were 33 seats in the Senate, and 11 governorships. The Senate outcome was harder to handicap: Republicans need a net gain of four seats for control, three if Romney won with his vice president able to break ties in the Republicans’ favor.
Turnout was reported heavy, particularly in swing states as well as storm-battered New York and New Jersey. Experts still expected it to remain below 2008 levels, finding voters less engaged. About 32 million people had voted early, either in person or by mail.
The president spent Election Day in Chicago. He stopped by his campaign’s Hyde Park field office in south Chicago to greet workers and call voters. He called six Wisconsin voters, then talked to supporters at the office.
He congratulated Romney for a “spirited campaign” and said he felt good about the results. “We feel confident we’ve got the votes to win, that it’s going to depend ultimately on whether those votes turn out,” Obama said.
Later Tuesday, Obama was player-coach for a quick basketball game. Among his team members was former Chicago Bulls great Scottie Pippen. Obama’s team won by about 20 points.
Romney voted in Belmont, Mass., and then made hastily scheduled campaign swings to Ohio and Pennsylvania. Ohio is considered crucial for Romney; no Republican has been elected president without winning the Buckeye State.
Pennsylvania has come into play only in recent days. Its 20 electoral votes were seen for months as safe Obama turf, but a combination of socially conservative voters and blue-collar workers hit hard economically is thought to have given Romney a chance.
The last day’s scramble was vividly on display at the Cleveland airport. As Romney was waiting for running mate Paul Ryan to arrive, Vice President Joe Biden’s plane took off. Biden made his own last-minute trek to Ohio.
Romney visited a Cleveland-area campaign office, where he proclaimed, “This is a big day for change.”
Afterward, he and Ryan went to lunch at a local Wendy’s restaurant. Romney ordered a quarter-pound hamburger, chili and a frosty, while Ryan had a quarter-pound burger and a salad.
The presidential race wound down the way it began more than a year ago – deadlocked between the two parties. Obama had safe leads in states with 201 electoral votes, while Romney led in 191, according to RealClearPolitics.com, a nonpartisan website.
It takes 270 electoral votes to win. Final poll averages showed Obama with small leads in a handful of states likely to decide this race: Virginia (13 electoral votes), New Hampshire (4), Ohio (18), Colorado (9), Iowa (6), Wisconsin (10) and Nevada (6). Romney led in Florida (29) and North Carolina (15).
Should results show Obama stumbling in the states whose polls close before 8 p.m. EST – Virginia, New Hampshire and Ohio – he could be in trouble. Strong showings in Florida and North Carolina would be seen as strong indicators the president was in good shape.
Michigan (16 electoral votes) and Pennsylvania (20), states Obama won handily last time, were also being watched closely. Romney made two last-minute visits to Pennsylvania this week, and his campaign argued it was gaining momentum there.
Obama was dogged throughout the year by voters expressing qualms about his stewardship of the economy. He was unlikely to match the 52.8 percent share of the popular vote he got in 2008, or match the 365 electoral votes he won that year, when he pledged to start a new era of “hope and change” politics.
The campaign will be remembered as a marathon that started and stayed close. Neither Romney nor Obama could open up much of a lead, and both parties spent unprecedented billions of dollars for ads and efforts to turn out their voters.
Obama was vulnerable from the beginning. Within weeks of taking office in January 2009, he pushed through an $831 billion economic stimulus plan aimed at easing the recession’s impact. In 2010, he won approval of a historic overhaul of the nation’s health system, which will require nearly everyone to obtain coverage by 2014.
Both measures were passed with virtually no Republican support, and often bitter partisan wrangling. Republicans saw a huge political opening, and fueled by the grassroots tea party movement, the party won control of the House of Representatives in 2010 by protesting what it called Obama’s overreliance on and expansion of government.
At the same time, the economy struggled to recover. The nation’s unemployment rate, 7.8 percent the month Obama took office, went to 10 percent that October and was 7.9 percent last month – more ammunition for the Republicans.
Obama, though, got some breaks. The economy did recover. Unemployment has dropped from its highs. Consumer confidence inched up. And Romney, who had governed Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007 from the center-right, struggled at first to win the hearts of the conservatives who drive the Republican Party.
Obama exploited Romney’s past, recalling his support of Massachusetts’ abortion rights laws and his support for the state’s health care law, considered a model for the federal program.
Obama was also able to target specific groups of voters who Romney tended to alienate. The president pushed hard for women’s votes with reminders that Romney now sided firmly with anti-abortion forces and had to call for “binders full of women” in order to find qualified women to fill jobs while governor. In states with legions of auto workers such as Ohio, he recalled how Romney urged letting the domestic industry go bankrupt without any help from the federal government.
Romney won the nomination only after an unexpected struggle against a weak field, and not until the summer and fall did the party base begin rallying around him. The choice of Ryan helped energize the right, but Romney’s biggest boost came during the Oct. 3 debate in Denver.
Romney’s assured performance that night galvanized conservative support and seemed to give him new momentum. He briefly opened up a larger lead over Obama, only to see it fade as the president came back and did well in the next two debates.
What may have helped Obama most was Superstorm Sandy. Leaders traditionally benefit from a rally-round-the-flag effect immediately after crises, and Obama suspended campaigning for three days last week so he could monitor and manage emergency responses.
Last Wednesday, he visited battered New Jersey, touring the devastation with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who had given the party convention’s keynote address. Christie had warm praise for the president’s efforts.
By David Lightman McClatchy