A demographic tsunami became a Democratic tidal wave as President Obama won a tight but decisive re-election victory Tuesday with the help of record-breaking support from Hispanic voters, massive turnout from African Americans and continuing enthusiasm from young Americans.
Although Republican nominee Mitt Romney won a larger share of white votes than any presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan scored a landslide re-election in 1984, the former Massachusetts governor ended up a loser at the polls because of the racial, ethnic and generational changes that have altered the U.S. electoral landscape.
The portion of nonwhite voters in the electorate has tripled over the last four decades to 27 percent on Tuesday. The Democratic incumbent led among African Americans by 93 percent to 7 percent _ the best performance by a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Heavy African American turnout in Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Miami changed the dynamic in four battleground states. In key swing states, Romney received just one percent of the African American vote in Florida and 3 percent in Ohio and Virginia.
Meanwhile, Latino voters, energized by tough Republican rhetoric on immigration, voted Democratic by 69 percent to 30 percent, tipping the balance of power in a string of states including Nevada, New Mexico and Iowa.
"Gov. Romney's shift to the right on the issue of immigration during the GOP primary season made it impossible for him to equal the number of Latino votes that George W. Bush received in 2000 and 2004," said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan. "Efforts by numerous states to curtail early voting and require photo identification seem to have motivated these groups to record turnout numbers."
In addition to minority voters, Obama's majority-making coalition included young voters, those with college and graduate degrees, and women.
For the first time in American history, Latinos made up 10 percent of the electorate, up from 9 percent in 2008. The overwhelming Hispanic support _ and strong turnout _ helped Obama win New Mexico and Iowa, and kept the race close in states such as Florida, Colorado and Virginia.
In contrast to Obama's rainbow coalition, Romney's core supporters were older, evangelical and white. The Republican nominee did better among white voters than any Republican since Ronald Reagan in 1984, topping Obama by 20 points, 59 percent to 39 percent. Romney scored particularly well among older white men, white women who have not completed college and rural white males.
"We're seeing a Republican Party whose support base continues to shrink," said Mark P. Jones, chairman of political science department at Rice University. "The GOP is going to have to address that support over the next few years, particularly as they approach the next presidential election."
With votes not yet counted on the heavily Democratic West Coast, Romney was still clinging to a narrow lead in the popular vote _ an advantage almost certain to vanish when California's votes are tallied.
But Obama already had won enough states to clinch the 270 electoral votes needed to secure re-election.
After an Election Day characterized by long lines at polling places from Philadelphia to San Antonio to San Francisco, it became clear that both candidates did an exceptional job turning out their core supporters in an electorate polarized among partisan and ideological lines.
Obama received the support of 92 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of liberals, while Romney was backed by 94 percent of Republicans and 83 percent of conservatives.
Romney ran up large majorities in heavily Republican states, but the GOP nominee couldn't dent Obama's Midwestern firewall and fell short in other targeted states such as Pennsylvania, Nevada and New Hampshire.
Considering the deep divisions in the electorate, 2012 could easily be called "the year of the gap."
There was the gender gap. Women favored Obama, 54 percent to 44 percent, while men chose Romney by an almost identical margin, 53 percent to 45 percent. Mothers were more likely to support Obama (55 percent to 45 percent), while fathers sided with Romney (55 percent to 43 percent).
"Democrats effectively made the case that issues important to women, not just issues like abortion and reproductive rights but economic issues of equal pay and access to jobs, those issues resonated with women," said Ron Schurin, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut. "The Romney campaign seemed at times to be tone deaf on those issues. They tried to make a case _ they just didn't do it effectively."
In addition to the gender gap, there was a yawning generation gap. Voters under the age of 30 were strongly pro-Obama, 59 percent to 37 percent, while voters 65 and older favored Romney by 57 percent to 43 percent. The Republican nominee benefited from an increase in turnout among seniors, up from 16 percent of the electorate in 2008 to 19 percent this year.
There also was a huge difference in voting patterns by place of residence. Urban voters sided with Obama, 61 percent to 37 percent, while Romney carried rural America by a similar margin, 59 percent to 39. Romney narrowly led Obama among suburban votes nationally because of big majorities in North Carolina, Georgia and Texas. But the GOP nominee was trounced in Pennsylvania and Virginia suburbs and performed below his expectations in Ohio, Colorado and Nevada suburbs.
Angry Republican conservatives say they the only way to rebuild a majority is to purge the party of its old-fashioned pragmatists like Romney.
"Tomorrow morning we launch the battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party between small government constitutionalists and Tea Party types, and those like George Bush and Karl Rove who want to expand government," veteran conservative activist Richard A. Viguerie, chairman of ConservativeHQ.com.
Also contributing to this report was Summer Ballentine of the Hearst Washington bureau.
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