Barack Obama took the Republicans’ best shot and won a second term. In an even stronger tribute to his campaign team’s skills and get-out-the-vote operation, the president beat Republican challenger Mitt Romney in every meaningful swing state except North Carolina—and even there he came within 100,000 votes.
Nevertheless, some perspective is in order. Much of the post-election commentary suggests we have witnessed a party realignment on par with the Democrats’ New Deal coalition or the Republican majority after the Civil War. At the very least, you would think Obama won a 49-state landslide like re-elected incumbents Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984.
In fact, after some rounding up, Obama received 51 percent of the popular vote to Romney’s 48 percent. That’s exactly how George W. Bush did against John Kerry in 2004. Remember all the talk of a permanent Republican majority? The reality was Bush barely squeaked back into office, and those Republican majorities didn’t even survive the next election.
The Obama-Romney contest is similar to the 2004 election in many respects. In both cases, the country was less than enthusiastic about the incumbent president and could have been persuaded to part with him. In both cases, swing voters needed only to be convinced that the opposition party had produced a viable alternative. And in both cases, the incumbent relied heavily on an enthusiastic base driven by social issues and cultural affinity.
Just as Bush did to Kerry, Obama went negative against Romney early to try to preemptively disqualify him in the minds of wavering independents. Polls in purple states found that many battleground voters regarded Obama as a failure. But they also came to view Romney as too out of touch to be president.