A Draw on the Economy, a Win on Empathy - and the Face of a Changing Nation
Barack Obama neutralized Mitt Romney on the economy, beat him on empathy and again turned the curve of America's demographic change to Democratic advantage, winning a second term despite an unemployment rate that posed a major threat to his re-election campaign.
Deeply vulnerable on an economy that 77 percent of voters said is still in bad shape, Obama gave Romney just a single point in trust to handle it, 49-48 percent - far short of the real advantage Romney wanted, and needed, on the crux issue of the campaign.
Indeed, even among the six in 10 voters who named the economy as the top issue facing the country, Romney only narrowly edged Obama out, 51 to 47 percent.
It wasn't nearly enough.
Empathy was one reason revealed in the ABC News exit poll, analyzed for the network by Langer Research Associates: Obama trounced Romney by a 10-point margin in being seen as "in touch" with average Americans.
Trajectory was another: As negatively as the economy was rated, more voters said it's getting better than getting worse, 39 vs. 30 percent. Additionally, while more voters said the country's "seriously off on the wrong track" than going in the right direction, 52-46 percent, that's improved markedly - indeed from 69-29 percent in ABC News/Washington Post polling just two and half months ago. (It matters: Among "right direction" voters, Obama topped Romney by a record 87-point margin in exit polls, 93-6 percent).
And George W. Bush was a third. Remarkably, three years and ten months into Obama's presidency, his predecessor still takes the chief blame for nation's main headache. Voters by a substantial 53-38 percent blamed Bush over Obama for the country's current economic problems. Among those who did so, Obama beat Romney by a thumping 85-12 percent, a 73-point margin. Coming to the presidency in the footsteps of Bush - the most unpopular second-term president of the postwar era - is, for Obama, the gift that keeps on giving.
But it was Romney, not Bush, in this election, and he failed to surmount challenges that dogged him all year. Mauled by the long downturn, substantially more voters expressed a belief that the economic system favors the wealthy than think it's fair to most Americans, 55-39 percent. That badly burned Romney, given the fact that 53 percent believed his policies would favor the well-to-do.
Notably, across three of the four most important candidate qualities offered to voters, Romney won - by 13 percentage points among voters who prioritized a candidate who "shares my values," by 23 points among those focused on a "strong leader" and by 9 points among those who cared most about the candidate with "a vision for the future." But for the one attribute that Obama won - the candidate who "cares about people like me" - he beat Romney not by 9 or 13 or 23 points, but by a whopping 63 points.
Another result marks Romney's challenges with personal popularity - the low favorability ratings that made him the least popular major party nominee in polling back to 1984. While he improved on that, Romney's likeability problems still followed him to Election Day. Both Romney and Obama won 93 percent of voters who expressed a favorable view of them. But while 53 percent viewed Obama favorably overall, 47 percent expressed a favorable view of Romney - fewer than half. Their 6-point difference in personal popularity made the difference.
DEMOGRAPHICS - Then there's the country's demographic makeup. Whites accounted for 72 percent of voters in the national exit poll - the fewest in exit polls dating to 1976 (when it was 90 percent). Romney won 59 percent of them. But among the 28 percent who are nonwhite, Obama pulled in 80 percent. The president lost whites by 20 points but won re-election nonetheless, a record by far and the surest sign of a nation that's changed, and changing still.
Blacks accounted for 13 percent of voters - holding their 2008 share - and voted for Obama almost unanimously. Hispanics reached 10 percent of the electorate - their first foray into double-digits - and Obama won them by 71-27 percent, surpassing his margin four years ago, 67-31 percent, to achieve the largest Democratic margin among Hispanics since 1996.
And white men, 46 percent of the electorate in 1980, were down to 34 percent, a new low.
PARTY TIME - Partisanship follows that demographic trend. Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 6 points - virtually the same as in 2008, up from an even match in 2004, and enough to let Obama lose independents (by 45-50 percent) but win regardless. Often the quintessential swing voters in presidential elections, independents were not this year.
With partisanship comes polarization: Obama won 92 percent of Democrats, a record in 36 years of exit polls. And Romney's share of Republicans, 93 percent, matched the record in his party.
Just four in 10 voters identified themselves as moderates, a new low. A quarter were liberals, a new high; 35 percent were conservatives, a point from their high in 1984 and matching their level in 1988, but the highest, numerically since then. Middle ground looks elusive.
GENDER GAP, AND OTHERS - Women favored Obama by 11 points while men backed Romney by 7; the gender gap has been bigger just once, in 2000 (when men were +11 Bush and women were +11 Gore). Add in marital status and the gaps become garish: Married men for Romney by 60-38 percent; unmarried women (younger, more Democratic, more aligned with Obama on social and role-of-government issues) backed the incumbent by 67-31 percent.
Overall, young people by and large stayed the course with Obama, supporting him by 60-37 percent. While that was down from a record 34-point rout in this group in 2008, it still was a wide margin, and under-30s roughly matched their turnout of four years ago.
Across the age spectrum, seniors favored Romney by 12 points, 56-44 percent, giving him a new high for a Republican. If minority voters reflect the Democrats' growing demographic advantage, an aging population might reflect one avenue for GOP pushback in elections ahead.
In one other shift, the 2012 electorate appeared to be the most educated on record. Forty-seven percent of voters reported having a college degree, up from 44 percent in 2008 to a new high.
FORWARD - Other exit poll results suggest Obama should be careful of overreaching. He managed a majority job approval rating, 54 percent. Still, 51 percent said government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals; just 43 percent said it should do more to solve problems.
Most voters said that income tax rates should be increased only for those who make more than $250,000 (47 percent) or not for anyone (35 percent). And 63 percent said taxes should not be raised to cut the deficit.
On social issues, six in 10 voters said abortion should be legal in most or all cases; Obama won them by a 36-point margin, the best showing by a Democrat in available data back to 1992. (As has long been true, there was no gender gap in overall abortion views.)
Another issue showed less consensus: Voters essentially divided, 49-46 percent, on whether their state should legally recognize gay marriage.
On immigration policy, about two-thirds said most illegal immigrants working in the United States should be offered a chance to apply for legal status rather than be deported - and those supporting a path to legal status favored Obama by 61-37 percent.
Views remained mixed on Obama's signature social legislation, the Affordable Care Act: Half would repeal all or some of the law (split evenly); 44 percent would keep or even expand it.
In a campaign in which the Republican ticket offered a stark contrast in their plans for the federal Medicare program, voters overall gave an edge to Obama on who would better handle Medicare, 52 percent compared to 45 percent for Romney. But seniors - those currently in the program - tilted the other way, an 8-point advantage to Romney.
SANDY - One item, perhaps of long-term debate, will be what role if any Obama's response to Hurricane Sandy may have played in the outcome. It seems little, if any.
Well fewer than half, 42 percent, called Obama's hurricane response an important factor in their vote; 54 percent, not an important factor. Moreover, among those who said it was a factor, just 16 percent also said they made up their minds in the last few days of the election. That is just 7 percent of all voters.
Further, 15 percent said it was "the most important factor" in their vote, and among them just 17 percent made up their minds in the last few days. That is an even smaller share of voters - 3 percent. Obama may have won in a storm, but it doesn't look like the storm gave him the win.
Analysis by Gary Langer, with Julie Phelan, Gregory Holyk, Damla Ergun, Claudia Deane and Mollyann Brodie.