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President Obama's reelection: 12 takeaways

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(File photo/MGN) (File photo/MGN)

By Maggie Haberman
For POLITICO.com

It's over.

And the 2012 presidential race pretty much played out as predicted by public pollsters and observers. Except it was a better night for President Barack Obama in certain significant respects than was anticipated.

He defeated Mitt Romney in nearly all of the battleground states, including Virginia and Ohio, which had long been pegged as pivotal to the race, and he’s holding on to a lead in Florida.

Here are POLITICO’S 12 takeaways from the Obama win:

1. 2008 was not a drill

For months, Republicans had been working under the assumption that a bad economy would combine with an ebbing of the electorate that gave Obama victory in 2008. White voters would represent a higher portion of the electorate, black voters would never turn out again in such numbers, and Hispanic voters would be in play.

None of that turned out to be the case. The model predicted by Obama’s pollster, Joel Benenson, was right, and the one created by Romney pollster Neil Newhouse was wrong. And public polls, especially in battleground states, contrary to an Internet uproar, were not “skewed” as conservatives fiercely insisted.

Black voters turned out in huge numbers, helping the president in urban areas in Ohio and keeping the margins close in North Carolina, despite Obama’s loss there.

Black voters, in interviews ahead of the election, were vocal about their displeasure about questions about the president’s birthplace and some of the broader Obama criticism. And while Obama has not governed, as he’s said, as “the president of black America,” pundits and political watchers underestimated how black voters would feel this cycle.

Hispanic voters made up a higher segment of the electorate in 2012, according to exit polls. Romney’s camp assumed that the economy would be a winning message on its own, and that Latino voters would be so disappointed with the president over a failed promise of immigration reform that the Republican wouldn’t need to cut into Obama’s margins with them. That was not a safe assumption. If Obama wins Florida, black and Hispanic voters will be the reason why.

And in New Hampshire, voters seemed to prefer Obama as an authentic politician over the former neighbor-state governor. To be sure, Bill Clinton helped Obama with working-class white voters.

This was an ugly and bitter campaign, miles away from the “hope and change” prescription of four years ago. Obama has work to do to get past a fractious election.

Still, Tuesday’s results validate a few changing perceptions about the nature of U.S. politics right now. And they also are a reminder that a majority of voters do, as polls have shown, like Obama, and that their vote in 2008 wasn’t just an experiment — his presidency is not somehow illegitimate.

2. We now know who was bluffing

And it was not the Obama team. The Romney campaign made a late feint at map expansion and touted the prospect of winning 300 electoral votes by capturing historically blue presidential states like Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Michigan.

Yet Romney made no real efforts in any of those states, other than airing some late-breaking ads. Republicans didn’t have any real ground game efforts in any of those states.

Meanwhile, the Obama campaign invested in a serious ground game in every battleground state, and the Romney campaign didn’t, despite claims to the contrary. The Obama campaign knew the voters they had to target, and did so effectively.

The Romney campaign counted unanswered phone calls and door knocks in its tallies of voter contacts that it frequently released to the press. Political director Rich Beeson told reporters they saw huge momentum and movement, and were counting on enthusiasm, without offering much backup beyond expecting their voters to turn out on Election Day. In fairness to Beeson, he was one of the few out there on the record. Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades never publicly discussed strategy on a conference call, keeping a low profile that has also shielded him from a lot of blame.

Not only does the party need to expand the pool of voters it’s talking to, but it needs to change the way they’re talking to them. Republican strategists who read reporter Sasha Issenberg’s book “Victory Lab” and its chapters detailing the Obama campaign’s intricate voter-targeting metrics expressed concern — with reason — about their party’s chances a month ahead of Election Day.

Romney may have had a better fall season than 2008 nominee John McCain, but the campaign fell prey to some of the same problems at the end — chasing news cycles and trying to create the appearance of momentum. How could the campaign have misjudged things so badly, donors and supporters wondered at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center last night.

Some in Romneyland did seem to genuinely believe what they were saying, including those who insisted Fox News called it wrong when they declared Ohio had gone for the president — and by extension, called the election. But there will be a day of reckoning in terms of the grass roots, and examination of what it means to say you have a plan, and actually having one.

3. Romney did the best he could

This is not to say the GOP nominee ran the best campaign he could have — he didn’t. In fact, his campaign was incredibly poorly waged. The former businessman allowed too many curious decisions to be made — in fact, much like Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign, the Romney campaign was billed as a well-oiled machine, but was actually a bit messy up close.

But Romney as a candidate did the best he was capable of. And he got better at the end.

It ultimately was not enough. Romney was unable to be an emotive politician — at his final rally in New Hampshire on Monday night, the crowd was eager for more of him, but the candidate mostly stuck to his stump speech that he’d delivered all week. He never could connect with voters, and was defined early on by Democratic attacks to which he didn’t respond.

The former governor stopped making foot-in-mouth gaffes and saying cringe-worthy things of the “47 percent” variety, but he also proved incapable of expanding on his Denver debate win. Romney is not by nature a risk-taker, and that came through in how he ran his campaign and performed on the stump. He was not a good candidate, and that was proven by this metric — he lost a number of states with Republican governors, and Senate hopefuls had no coattails to ride on.

But it wasn’t a question of effort — Romney tried his best, it just wasn’t close to enough even if it was all he could do.

Romney’s future remains unclear, but he likely means it when he says he feels he gave it his all.

4. Labor ain’t dead

Unions have had a rough period over the past few years, culminating in Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s victory in a recall election into which labor leaders poured their hearts. They have been on the losing end of battles in Ohio about collective bargaining rights. And New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie has famously done battle with them.

Their brand at a time of national recession and shared sacrifice has not shone. But this election was also a reminder at how effective labor is at political organizing — and winning.

Labor played a big role in helping Obama in Nevada and Wisconsin, as well as in Ohio. The popularity of the auto bailout in the Buckeye State with unionized manufacturers is hard to overstate. What’s more, the Citizens United ruling allowed unions to pool resources in a much different way this cycle.

Obama’s relationship with labor has not always been sanguine. But in the end, he owes a lot to unions, which proved their muscle remains strong.

5. History as a guide is overrated

Was this election 1980 or 2004? Was it 2000 or a bit like 1976? For a year, pundits and strategists obsessively speculated about the precise historical election parallel to 2012 — including the fact that no president had been elected with an unemployment rate over 8 percent.

Yes, the unemployment rate went down to 7.9 percent by Election Day. Nonetheless, it spent many months over that 8 percent mark.

But as it happens, this cycle didn’t fit any of the historical precedents. Obama ended with a close race in the popular vote but an electoral blowout that isn’t dissimilar to his 2008 victory — although tonally, 2012 couldn’t have been more different.

It’s a worthwhile reminder that nothing has ever happened in politics before … until it does. Including electing the first black president, and then reelecting him.

6. Paul Ryan was not a game-changer

Ryan ends the cycle in good shape after performing well as Romney’s running mate, having done himself no real brand damage and serving as a good soldier who never really undermined the top of the ticket. He was no Sarah Palin.

Indeed, Ryan was the un-Palin in every respect. He rallied the base at events, but didn’t end up having any sort of game-changing impact.

That also worked in the Republicans’ favor — it’s not clear that the Ryan budget and the issue of Medicare as a voucher program actually played a pivotal role in the race. It’s certainly not easy to say he was a drag on the ticket.

But Ryan did not goose the ticket either, and in the end Romney lost Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin. Romney backers believe they were vindicated in not picking Christie after the tension over the past week that spilled out publicly in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and Romney clearly has had no regrets. But there will be lots of what-might-have-beens about Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, another finalist for the slot.

7. The Bush problem lingers

Romney’s refusal to triangulate away from President George W. Bush is one of the stranger decisions he made in this political climate.

Exit polls from Tuesday night show that a majority of voters still blame Bush for the weak economy.

This could be cause for concern for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is widely viewed as a potential 2016 hopeful and is a middle-of-the-road voice on immigration reform. It’s also an issue in terms of some of the Republicans’ top figures, such as Crossroads co-founder and former Bush political strategist Karl Rove.

How the Republicans deal with this in the next two years will be telling as their chances of reclaiming the White House next time around.

8. …So does the class problem

This issue was magnified by the fact that Republicans nominated a former private-equity executive, who allowed himself to be caricatured as a heartless corporate raider.

But the election laid bare, in the post-Lehman Brothers, post-housing crisis era, the extent of the class divide.

To wit — Elizabeth Warren, the populist crusader who was also a fairly flawed Senate candidate, won handily in Massachusetts against a fairly popular, centrist Republican.

The existence of the video in which Romney dismissed 47 percent of Americans at a fundraiser merely stoked the anger. The issue of “fair share-ism” was on display in the presidential campaign, and Republicans will need to address it ahead of 2016.

9. The big donor model is flawed

After his 2008 presidential race tanked, Romney made it his mission to lock up all the big donors years ahead of time. He recognized that 2008 presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani and McCain had frozen him out in this regard, and he started getting bundler commitments in 2010.

The campaign prided itself on the efficiency of its donor model, which surpassed even Bush’s in terms of attention and interest in donors.

But the campaign’s focus on donor-related process was sometimes a detriment. The campaign was constantly coming up with retreats for donors, phone calls for donors, assurance for donors. There was so much focus on raising money, yet not that much on whether it was being spent effectively.

There will be many post-mortems on how the campaign spent its cash, but among the questions are why Boston was basically broke in August, why it was off the airwaves for part of the summer, and why it couldn’t achieve parity with the Obama campaign in terms of its ad strategy.

But the exclusive focus on big donors, without a real program for harnessing smaller ones, is not a sustainable model in this era.

10. The gay marriage movement won

By midnight on Tuesday, victory had been declared for pro-same-sex marriage activists in a ballot referendum in Maine, one of four states that had such a measure presented to voters.

It was a first — never before had same-sex marriage passed at the ballot box — and it signals a new moment for an issue on which public opinion is rapidly shifting. The Senate’s first openly gay member, Tammy Baldwin, was elected in Wisconsin.

Just three years ago, Maine voters rejected same-sex marriage when it was on the ballot. There will be fights ahead. But activists will savor this landmark as voters passed this measure instead of officials via legislative process or judges in a courtroom, a benchmark that activists will herald.

11. Abortion is a tough issue for Republicans

The comments about rape from two Senate GOP candidates — Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock — ignited a fury nationally, and those remarks helped cost Republicans both those seats in the red states of Missouri and Indiana, respectively. They also helped keep the Senate in Democratic hands.

Both candidates are against abortion rights and made the comments in the course of discussing restrictions on abortion in the case of rape.

Democrats successfully managed to make abortion and laws protecting it a central case in the past 12 months, in part because of fights over defunding Planned Parenthood. Democrats have openly talked about abortion in a way that would be hard to imagine in races over the past decade.

Republicans are now the ones at risk for how they are talking about the issue — some women found the rape comments insensitive at best and wildly offensive at worst — and given the recognition among national Republicans that they need to make inroads with women voters, it’s something they have to address ahead of the next elections.

12. The Senate is for women

There is a dearth of women who could be presidential nominees in both parties (Warren is counted among them on the Democratic side, but there aren’t many others).

But the Senate now has 19 members who are women. Add to that the fact that a woman was elected governor of New Hampshire, and female candidates had a good night.

Maggie Haberman is a reporter for POLITICO.com. POLITICO and ABC News 4 have partnered for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.
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